The difference between gender equity and equality—and why it matters

Rwanda Classroom Women-Gender Equality
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY STEPHANIE AGLIETTI Refugee students attend a class on September 6, 2016, at the Kiziba camp in western Rwanda. Created at the beginning of the First Congo War (1996-1997), the camp hosts over 17,000 refugees, mainly Congolese who fled instability and ethnic persecution in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Supervised by teachers, refugees at the camp are now able to follow the same curriculum as American students from the American University Southern New Hampshire and access their course via an online platform. NGO Kepler has supported the initiative giving the students much needed access to classrooms and technology. / AFP / STEPHANIE AGLIETTI (Photo credit should read STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP via Getty Images)

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was centered around the notion that “[a]n equal world is an enabled world.” Indeed, there has been global progress toward a world that has gender equality; nearly 68% of the countries (101 of 149) included in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report showed improvements in their scores for gender parity for 2019. 

But despite this progress, education is one of many areas in which men and women are still not equally enabled. So while the world is close to reaching gender parity in terms of access to primary education, girls still face more obstacles to their education than boys in low- and middle-income countries. Laws may enable girls to attend school, but in many countries there are still other barriers limiting girls’ education, such as families prioritizing boys’ education and cultural beliefs that girls should be limited to a future of raising children. 

The key to removing such barriers is to shift the mindset away from gender equality to one of gender equity. While gender equality is simply focused on providing men and women with the same equal opportunities (like making it legal for women to own land, or even attend school), gender equity works to correct the historical wrongs that have left women behind (such as societal restrictions on employment). Gender equity also means giving women the tools to succeed, like programs that offer conditional cash transfers to women. A focus on equity bridges the gaps in equality through laws and policies and gender-focused programs that don’t just level the playing field, but also work to change the culture to be more supportive of women. 

This cultural shift requires all people, from leaders to individual community members, to understand the difference between equity and equality and provide extra support to women, rather than just offer them the same opportunities as men. And it starts with each of us recognizing and breaking down the lingering barriers that prevent those opportunities from becoming a reality for many women.

By investing in their education, women gain more access to leadership positions, which also empowers them to improve the lives of people within their communities. The profound impact gender equity has is evident: When the status of women improved in low- and middle-income countries, for instance, there was a 47% reduction in childhood mortality, according to a 2015 study published in Biodemography and Social Biology.

In my country, Rwanda, the government and civil society have worked to promote an equity agenda, by not only ensuring equitable access to education, employment, and health care for women, but also promoting women as leaders in society. In medical school admissions in Rwanda, female candidates have been prioritized, with female enrollment rates increasing from 20% in 2017 to 48% in 2018. Today, at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, we are continuing these efforts to promote gender equity in our programs, by prioritizing that at least two-thirds of our medical students are women. And as these female physicians become leaders in our society, they will leverage their positions to lift other women up. 

Further, as a constitutional requirement in Rwanda, a minimum of one-third of positions in Parliament and all public institutions must be held by both genders, a policy enacted in 2003, a time when women held very few leadership positions. Today 61% of Parliament is made up of women (the highest in the world). Through efforts such as these, Rwanda has come closer to gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda holds the rank of the most gender equal country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ninth-most gender-equal country in the world. In turn, promoting women in our society and, with a mindset of gender equity, ensuring they have the support they need to access education and quality health care have contributed—at least in part—to a decrease in maternal mortality by 80% from 2000 to 2017 and childhood mortality by 75% from 1992 to 2015. 

But Rwanda is just one example of progress toward both gender equity and equality, and there is still work to be done to reach a fully equitable global society. The world has failed on the promises made in the Beijing Declaration over the last 25 years to achieve true gender equality globally—and that failure stems from not having equity at the center of countries’ approaches. 

Today, our global society still has 10 years left to reach the goal of gender equality set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve this, it is time for all of us to shift from an equality to equity agenda and ensure that all are actively promoting and supporting women, in education and in all aspects of life. Only then can an equal and truly enabled world be achieved. 

Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, MD, M(Ped), Ph.D., is vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

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