Our interviewees told us a lot about the importance of legal protections.
Research participants described law as a lever and shield, and as a final argument when compelling other bodies to act. Some interviewees suggested it was important to have an obligatory structure to compel other bodies to take sex/gender equality seriously, e.g., in relation to gender pay gaps. Several interviewees described law as a backstop and characterised their policies and practices to advance equality as being ahead of the law.
At the same time, views were mixed about whether sex/gender equality was treated more seriously than equality areas where people weren’t legally categorised. Academics we spoke with were more doubtful than equality officials about the value of having a legally designated sex/gender. This suggests the effects of people being assigned a legal sex/gender may be greater in the policy field than in legal practice. It also raises questions about intersectional practice when some equality grounds give rise to legal status and others don’t.
Read more about the politics surrounding gender categories and equality governance practice.
Our research also revealed different ways of understanding gender and sex among people engaged in equality work (in local government, regulatory bodies, NGOs, and trade unions), including:
- Sex as dimorphic embodiment (distinct male and female-type bodies), while gender was associated with stereotypical expectations and norms.
- Sex/gender as interchangeable terms
- Sex as varied and complex – since people’s chromosomes, hormones, and bodily features do not necessarily correspond in binary ways
- Gender as a structure of inequality, oppression, or domination
- Gender as a set of identifications or modes of expression
Many interviewees approached gender as both a social structure and personal identification. With research participants, we explored the difficulty of how to think about and develop policies and provision that recognised and responded to these interconnected but different ways of approaching gender.
One difficulty for work in many organisations and public sector bodies addressing sex and gender equality was the divided organisational structure. This meant equality work relating to sex/ women was separated and distinct from that relating to LGBT. This created staffing and policy tensions in some cases. It created unhelpful conceptual divisions, blocking effective understanding of how gender operates as a social process that makes sex meaningful and shapes how people understand themselves in sexed and gendered terms. It also created less integrated approaches where an organisation’s LGBT equality agenda pursued a pluralist approach towards gender based on self-identification, while policies for women focused on a binary structure of disadvantage – sometimes referred to as ‘sex’ and sometimes as ‘gender’.
Read more about the conceptual struggle for gender’s future.