In contemporary Western society, the equality of men and women has become something of a religious doctrine, and even questioning it is seen as heretical by many. Despite the frequent repetition of the mantra that “men and women are equal,” it is never explained what this statement even means. And the meaning is far from obvious.
The word “equal” is used in two different senses. Things can be equal without any qualifiers, or they can be equal in some particular quality such as weight, volume, price, age, etc. In general usuage, two things are equal to one another in the first sense only if they are actually the same thing. For example, the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is equal to two times the first positive root of the real cosine function. These are two descriptions of the same mathematical object, the constant known as π. Obviously, men and women are not equal in this sense.
Should the statement “men and women are equal” be understood in the second sense? The question then is in what quality they are equal. Are they equal in weight? No, men weigh more. Are they equal in height? No, men are taller. Are they equal in age? No, women are older. There may be some attributes where men and women are equal, such their number of limbs or their ability to fly by flapping their arms. But if we used such a low standard for equality we’d also be forced to conclude that humans and other apes are equal, which no one seems to believe.
What seems to me to be the least absurd definition is to look at equality of value. So are men and women equally valuable? Before we can answer that question, we first need to clarify what the value of a human being is supposed to be. In modern economics, value is seen as subjective, so it is impossible to make a general declaration as to the value of men and women. The value I assign to a particular man or woman may be completely different to the value you assign. We might then, at least in theory, look at how much a particular person values all men as a group and all women as a group. Alternatively we might look at how much someone values the average man and the average woman (whatever that means). Either way, the result we will get is that some people value men more highly and others value women more highly. Equality will remain elusive.
Another approach is to define value as market price. This approach is problematic when applied to human beings since they are nowadays rarely bought or sold directly. When and where open trade in humans existed, the prices for male and female slaves were typically different (for example in the American antebellum South, male slaves fetched higher average prices than female slaves). In the absence of a slave market, we have to content ourselves with indirect measures. One approach would be to look at a person’s lifetime earnings, in which case men would be more valuable than women. Another approach would be to look at how much people value their own lives based on what kind of risks they are willing to take for monetary gain. A paper by W. Kip Vicusi used that method to determine that women value their lives more relative to how much they value money.
We could look at yet more approaches, but the gist is that whatever reasonable definition of value you use, you either get men being more valuable than women or the reverse. The only way to get the desired result of equality between men and women is to cheat by using absurd definitions, such as simply defining all human beings as having equal worth, or by retreating to claims such as “God loves all souls equally.” (Good luck demonstrating that to someone who doesn’t already believe it.)
In the end, the claim of men and women being equal is a pious platitude which does not survive closer scrutiny. Men and women are different in many important ways. Men are superior to women in some ways and women are superior to men in others. Nor is there any good reason to believe that these strengths and weaknesses will exactly balance out for any given method of evaluating them. Instead of clinging to an illusory equality, we should accept the fact that we are all different and try to do the best with the hand we’ve been dealt.