Investing in Women for Global Growth
Pamela Reeves

Let’s Make 2017 the Year of Gender Equity and Parity

In recent years, organizations, researchers, and foundations, ranging from the World Health Organization to McKinsey & Company, have been seemingly substituting the terms “equity” and “parity” in favor of “equality,” when referencing or reporting on global women’s issues. Indeed, it seems as if the days of calling for “gender equality” have passed.

For instance, the theme for last year’s International Women’s Day was the #PledgeForParity campaign, and this year’s #BeBoldForChange theme encouraged “pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity.” Organizations like Dining for Women, a global giving circle, have gone so far as to publicly state that campaigning for equality is insufficient, and that gender equity should be the true goal.

Though the terms “equality,” “equity,” and “parity” are often used interchangeably, there are important nuances that differentiate each term. The meaning of each word is noble in its own right, but in order to promote fairness between genders and advance women around the globe, the focus should be on promoting equity and parity.

Gender equality, which refers to providing equal access to opportunities, social goods, and other resources for men and women, is limited in that it does not often result in equitable outcomes between the genders. Gender equality is something that we in the U.S. have made considerable strides throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; for instance, nearly a century ago in 1920, women were provided equality in the right to vote. Equality also serves an important role in allowing people of all genders the ability to, say, run for political office or become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. This access does exist in America — and much of the world — yet, in the U.S., no woman has held presidential office, only 19.4% of Congress is made up of women, and only 21% of Senate seats are held by women. Even more disappointingly, per the 2016 Fortune 500 list, only 4.2%, or 21 of the 500 of America’s largest companies are led by female CEOs.

Despite the equality, or equal access apparently available for a plethora of resources and opportunities, women in the U.S. and around the globe are still at a significant disadvantage. Unfortunately, due to gender differences, norms, biases, and disadvantages, equality and the access it provides alone do not and have not proven sufficient for supporting half of our world’s population. That is where equity and parity come in. According to the United Nations Population Fund, gender equity refers to “being fair to women and men.” That is, equity goes a step above equality by taking into account disadvantages faced by today and yesterday’s women, promoting not just equal access, but also an equal playing field. Though promoters of “equality” argue that it provides choice, allowing women the opportunity to choose whether they want to stay home with their families or climb a corporate ladder, these arguments fail to take into account the nuances of social infrastructure and gender biases and norms that make true equality extremely difficult. Equality is idealistic and admirable, but is nearly impossible outside of a utopia without the aid of to equity to give people of all genders the access and assistance needed to achieve success.

Similar to equity, parity refers to a goal that attempts to reach farther than equality. Parity refers to the ratio of females-to-males for relevant measures of gender equality, such as representation in the labor force and access to education. Parity in gender representation is a very important issue, given well-documented lower literacy rates and education levels of women around the world, and the extent to which women are underrepresented in politics, business, and other many other labor and leadership roles. Completely or nearly equal ratios may be difficult to achieve for many of these issues without significant structural, social, and cultural changes around the world. However, it is imperative that we strive for improved gender parity for these issues, especially for education, for which the lack of parity is highly related to social norms and biases and for which improvements can break cycles of poverty.

Striving for gender equality is a valiant feat, but hiding behind the ideal of providing access and opportunity will not solve the myriad of gender-related issues and disadvantages that exist for women all around the world. Perhaps by uniting behind the mission of achieving gender equity and improving gender parity, women around the world will not just have the right to education or to run for political office, but they will be empowered to do so.