Could this ecological condition wipe out decades of gains in gender equality?

Could an infectious disease pandemic wipe out gender equality?
CC BY-SA 2.0 Claus Rebler

Regardless of how they felt about Hillary as a poster child for gender equality, her candidacy has influenced many people's conversations and philosophies on women's rights and equality for all people anywhere on the gender spectrum.

We like to think that activism and hard work have gotten us where we are (and we like not to think about how fragile that might be). But a study just published in Nature Human Behavior suggests a surprising precondition for gender equality: a reduction in the rate of infectious diseases.

The study examined progress towards gender equality and correlated that with four ecological conditions: pathogen prevalence, resource scarcity, external threat (war) and climatic stress. The data shows the prevalence of infectious diseases to far outweigh other ecological conditions as a predictor of gender equality progress.

The correlation can be explained by several theories. First, the authors suggest that disease contributes to conservatism. When the family and community is threatened by disease, people turn to traditional structures, including a more authoritarian family structure, in order to provide for the sick and fend off the spread of the disease into the community. Second, when children are dying, women spend more time focused on procreation, leaving less time to live in a manner that contributes to gender equality.

At a time of growing fears about Zika virus, zombie anthrax, and other climate-change induced pandemics, could this study mean that a global pandemic could wipe out all of our hard earned progress towards equality of the sexes? It is certainly a credible threat, given that the rationale supporting the correlation of health with gender equity works in the opposite direction: if disease rates increase, a flight to conservatism and a reduction in the participation of women in the economic and political arenas seems plausible.

On the other hand, the benefit of scientific knowledge is that we can use it to find clever solutions to the gender issue. Decades of social policies that encourage the presence of men in the lives of their babies could result in a generation for which turning 'conservative' means reflexively embracing the sharing of parental care-giving. Could we reach a tipping point of equality in which women are so trusted for their opinions on important issues that their absence from the scene would be unthinkable?

While the US may not (yet) have joined the UK, Germany, and many other nations with a female head of state, we can certainly continue to work on creating a society where the everyone's contribution offers too much value to be lost in the event of adversity.

Could this ecological condition wipe out decades of gains in gender equality?
You may be surprised to learn the ecological condition most necessary for progress in gender equality. Hint: it's not war, resource scarcity, or climate change

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