There are two 'big ideas' or explanatory frameworks that made a big impression on me when I first started working in women in SET as opposed to being a woman scientist. One was Teresa Rees's description of different approaches to gender equality as 'Tinkering, Tailoring and Transforming'.
Tinkering refers to an approach based on equal treatment. This is the approach that underlay legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Equal Pay Act (1970): it is illegal to treat someone less favourably on the grounds of sex.
The second approach recognizes that equal treatment may not be sufficient to achieve equality: deeply engrained differences make it essential to take action to tackle disadvantages. This is the ethos behind positive action and Rees refers to it as tailoring. The focus of much 'tailoring' activity is adjusting women to accommodate existing structures and processes, for example, 'Women into management' courses.
Transforming sees differences not as a problem to be overcome but as something to be embraced for mutual benefit. In this approach the focus is on adjusting structures and processes to accommodate differences or mainstreaming.
Clearly, institutions must comply with the legal requirement not to discriminate. Also, most people think that equal treatment is fair.
Positive action can be very powerful, especially initiatives that encourage women to advance in their careers while embracing their identities as women. The disadvantage is that it can lead to a focus on 'deficit model' or 'male as norm' approaches in which the problem is seen as being that women are not men with the solution being to 'fix the women' by encouraging them to act more like men. (Note that 'deficit model' is used with two quite different meanings in the literature. For example, Sonnert and Holton, American Scientist 84 (1996) 63-71, see http://www.aps.org/programs/women/workshops/upload/sonnert1.pdf, define the 'deficit model' to mean that women receive fewer chances and opportunities along their career paths as a result of legal, political or social structural obstacles. On the other hand, Carol B. Muller, founder of MentorNet refers to the 'deficit model' as the assumption that women lack something - ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation - that they need to succeed, see Pan-Organizational Summit on the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce (2003)). Positive action measures can also lead to resentment both among men who feel that women are being given an unfair advantage and among women who feel that they are being labelled as in need of remedial help.
Rees describes the difference between positive action and mainstreaming as
'Rather than helping round women fit into square holes, it makes those holes more adaptable – to take all sizes and shapes.'
The advantage of mainstreaming is that it embeds equality within the organization rather than seeing it as an optional, or externally imposed, extra. The process of embedding equality may lead to resentment: some are unhappy with any measure that goes beyond equal treatment, some will interpret changes as special treatment, and some have a deeply held belief that employees ought to mould themselves to their employer's requirements. The principal disadvantage is that it is difficult to achieve. Inequality results from a large number of interacting factors. Identifying issues and appropriate actions is difficult; monitoring progress on any useful timescale near impossible.
All three approaches are necessary. It is important that people be treated fairly. It is necessary that women should be empowered to succeed within the current structures and processes. We can't wait for them to be fixed. To achieve genuine equality structures and processes have to change.