When people talk about women's equality, there's a lot of use of the word "fair". It's not fair that women earn less over their lifetime than men. It's not fair that women are subjected to violence because they are female. And so on. But what do we really mean?
1 treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination: the group has achieved fair and equal representation for all its members a fairer distribution of wealth
just or appropriate in the circumstances:
to be fair, this subject poses special problems
it's not fair to take it out on her
archaic (of a means or procedure) not violent: try first by fair means
Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary
It is not fair to deny a promotion to a woman because "she might get pregnant and it would be a waste of our investment in getting her to that level". That's an excuse I've actually heard from a male manager on why he doesn't promote women. The fair thing would be to promote the person who is best able to do the job, with gender being a non-issue. We can all agree on that.
But it is entirely possible to treat two people exactly the same, without discrimination on the basis of gender, and still be unfair. Female child care workers get the same pay as male child care workers. But because the majority of child care workers are women, and there are a lot of child care workers in Australia, the pay rate for child care workers is bringing down the average for women's income. Fair Work Australia recently recognised that being a female-dominated area is one of the reasons why community workers don't get the same pay as State Government workers, with a lower percentage of women, doing similar jobs. These workers will be disadvantaged for life, retiring with far less superannuation, and with less capacity to pay off a home or save for a rainy day. Is this fair?
Caring for children is one of the highest responsibilities in society. The evidence that early childhood experiences shape the child's life is undisputed. And yet we, as a society, consider it "just or appropriate in the circumstances" that the female-dominated child care industry has one of the lowest pay levels in the country. We pay more to have our toilets unblocked, or to the man who sells us a used car, than we do to nurture the generation who will one day run the country.
What is fair, what is just and appropriate, is not always equal. There are times when we need to redress imbalance. This is why scholarships are sometimes needed, or quotas, or other mechanisms to boost the numbers of those who are not fairly represented. Providing additional support to those who need it means the race begins with everyone at the same starting line. That's fair.
Image taken from nyghtowl's photostream on Flickr under creative commons licence.