Concept Paper (2)                                         Gender equality vs. Gender equity

Gender is defined as distinct from sex in that it refers to the social and cultural constructs which, while based on the biological sex of a person, defines his or her roles in society[1]; thus gender-based violence is taken to mean the violence which is inflicted on a person because of their biological sex. In a parallel sense, a society in which there was no discrimination against anyone based on his or her sex could be said to have achieved gender equality, and more generally, gender equality could be defined as full equality between the sexes.  A more rights-based definition of gender equality can be developed with reference to two of the fundamental international instruments in this regard: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] declares that all humans are born free and equal, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women[3] refers to this declaration in its second paragraph, while repeating the terms “equal rights of men and women” and “equality of rights of men and women” at least four times in the first five paragraphs, reaching the “full equality of men and women” in the final opening paragraphs before Article 1. CEDAW goes on to enumerate the “same rights” and the “same opportunities” which must be available to all men and women in various fields of human activity, including but not limited to education, marital legislation, and labour. Thus, the concept of gender equality may be taken to primarily refer to the full equality of men and women to enjoy the complete range of political, economic, civil, social and cultural rights, with no one being denied access to these rights, or deprived of them, because of their sex.

However, to achieve such full equality in a meaningful and real sense, equality under the law is simply not sufficient, though vitally necessary. The historically inferior position of women, the all-too-often unfavourable cultural and traditional context and the social roles must be taken into account: “Formal or de jure equality, which involves simply “adding women” to the existing paradigms is an inadequate response to women’s inequality. Realizing women’s substantive or de facto equality involves addressing the institutionalized nature of women’s disadvantage and changing the cultural, traditional and religious beliefs that typecast women as inferior to men. It also means recognizing that notions of masculinity and femininity are interdependent…”[4] Although not explicitly using the term gender, the concept is clear in the phrase `notions of masculinity and femininity`, and the message seems to be that as development practitioners, we should recognise the “gendered” stereotypes which prevent achievement of full equality between the sexes, and attempt to redress them.

Various development institutions have built on this concept to develop their own `working definitions` of the term gender equality, as part of the global ` gender mainstreaming` initiatives which have been taking place since the 1990s[5]. For example, AusAID defines gender equality as

…the equal valuing of the roles of women and men. It works to overcome the barriers of stereotypes and prejudices so that both sexes are able to equally contribute to and benefit from economic, social, cultural and political developments within society. When women and men have relative equality, economies grow faster and there is less corruption. …Men and women are physically different but it is the social, economic, political and legal interpretation of these differences that lead to inequality between them.[6]

While CIDA offers a more prosaic approach:

Equality between women and men or gender equality—promoting the equal participation of women and men in making decisions; supporting women and girls so that they can fully exercise their rights; and reducing the gap between women’s and men’s access to and control of resources and the benefits of development—is still out of reach for most women worldwide.[7]

It is interesting how CIDA emphasizes the rights-based approach, while the AusAID definition highlights the “barriers of stereotypes and prejudice“ as the main cause of inequality. Another noteworthy comment in the CIDA definition is the mention of “access to and control of resources“ and `reducing the gap“ which will be returned to in the discussion of gender equity. And finally, the UN Millenium Taskforce on MDG3 Gender Equality offers a highly technical definition for this concept, identifying three main `domains` as an operational framework: capabilities, which refers to basic human abilities as measured by education, health, and nutrition; access to resources and opportunities, (both political and economic, such as equal rights on land and property) and finally and of great interest but outside the scope of this essay, the issue of security and the vulnerability of women and girls to violence[8]. The inclusion of this domain in the definition of gender equality is justified by explaining that such vulnerability significantly reduces the abilities of individuals and households to realise their full potential in other spheres.  All these definitions, while varying in wording and complexity, are based on the equality of sexes in the political, economic, social and cultural domain, and thus ultimately have their roots in the rights-based worldview outlined at the beginning of this essay, while directly or indirectly hinting at the conflictual implications of equality in regards to the various barriers of gender stereotypes.


WHO defines gender equity as “fairness and justice in the distribution of benefits and responsibilities between women and men”[9], and indeed the term gender equity seems often juxtaposed to social justice.  In general, one receives the impression that while gender equality is used to refer to the overarching canopy of equal rights and opportunities, together with corresponding lack of gender discrimination in all spheres of human activity, gender equity has a more narrow application and strongly economic or rather, material connotations.  In other words, gender equity appears to be one of the many building blocks on the path to achieve gender equality. For example, in Equality for Women published by the World Bank, equity is used primarily to refer to numeric indicators of equality [10] as crystallised by the Gender Equity Index (GEI) which covers indicators across the fields of education (social dimension), income and share of job market (economic dimension), and share of members of parliament and high-paid jobs (political dimension).


There is without doubt a strong socio-economic aspect to the term “gender equity”, which has been also defined as “individual`s access to, and control over resources“[11]- recalling incidentally CIDA`s definition of gender equality quoted above. Razavi and Miller provide a detailed elaboration on how equity was considered `synergistic` with efficiency, and was thus used by proponents of women`s rights to convince development planners in the seventies to include women in aid and development. As rightly critiqued by the article, this convergence of equity and efficiency, however strategically convenient in drawing the attention of economists to gender issues, falls apart when it becomes apparent that in many situations, equity does not correlate to efficiency, or indeed may even hinder it. [12]


Moser[13] places equity as the second phase of WID, after the welfare approach. The equity approach focused on the subordination of women to men not just in the family, but also in the marketplace, and considered economic independence as synonymous with equity, together with reduction of the inequality between men and women.  According to Moser, the equity approach suffered from the hostility of development practitioners (who seemed as sceptical as Razavi and Miller on the alignment of equity and efficiency), lack of guarantees for its implementation in practice, and the fact that it seemed to meet potential, rather than actual strategic gender needs- and that through a top-down legislative approach- arousing the ire of those ready to cry imperialism and Western interference.  It seems based on such analyses that that the equity approach in development is dismissed as passé and “deeply flawed” because “lacking rigorous gendered analysis“ by Jain[14]. 


Yet there are scholars who are profoundly dissatisfied with such definitions and even seek to reverse the relative positioning of gender equality and gender equity as outlined above. This dissatisfaction appears to stem primarily with their fundamental problem in accepting Western notions of “human rights“ as a universal good, linking them with specifically western philosophies of individualism and liberalism. “Equality between men or even between women in certain circumstances may be iniquitous…we need to politicize equality and develop an equity framework that enables us and our various societies to address the needs of people –men and women- in an equitable way, bearing in mind the differential impact of race, class, age and other constraints on power relations“. [15] Thus it is argued that equality, as discussed above, is part and parcel of the wider discourse of human rights and is appropriated as such by various Western (and Australian (!)) development institutions and agencies, and that furthermore it is one of the set of `particularistic normative standards`[16] which cannot be neutral or universal, but are historically and culturally western notions. Not that that need lessen its effectiveness and value, as is further argued in the same article.[17]


Indeed, there seems to be a conscious move away from the loaded term of gender equality and towards gender equity as a more value-neutral and useful concept in, for example, the selection of articles presented in Women and Gender Equity in Development Theory and Practice[18]. As shown by Jaquette and Summerfield, the concept of gender equity remains relevant, though perhaps no longer as part of a purely WID discourse.  The concept retains its socioeconomic connotations, as in the article “Gender Equity and Rural Land Reform“ which discusses the implications of land reform in rural China for women, the progress made and the shortcomings still to be met. In this article, the term gender equity is used to refer to the equitable or otherwise treatment of women and men under the law as regards farm property rights.


I have arrived at the conclusion that while the gender equality is generally taken to encompass a broad spectrum of rights and opportunities, and thus is attractive to institutions, for this very reason it may provoke the hostility or be otherwise inutile to scholars who wish to focus on specific aspects of gender relations in development. In contrast, the term gender equity has specific socioeconomic underpinnings which could lend it a sharper, more concentrated and less value-laden beam, which is why scholars exploring issues as diverse as the tension between universalism and cultural relativism, to the impact of specific land reforms on gender relations in rural China, have preferred the term gender equity to equality. 



[1] For full discussion of this distinction, please refer to Mosse, Julia Cleves (1993) Half the World, Half a Chance. Oxfam: Oxford.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN, 1949. Electronic version available at:

[3] Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, UN, 1979. Electronic version available at:

[4]  Jain, D., & United Nations. (2005). Women, development, and the UN : A sixty-year quest for equality and justice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 88

[5] Goetz, Anne and Sally Baden (1998) “Who needs [sex] when you can have [gender]: Conflicting discourses on gender at Bejing” in Cecile Jackson and Ruth Pearson, eds. Feminist Visions of Development: Gender analysis and policy, p.22

[6] Source:

[7] Source:

[8]UN Millennium Project 2005. Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and  Empowering Women. Task Force on Education and Gender Equality. p.30 

[9] World Health Organization (2001) Transforming health systems: gender and rights in reproductive health. Geneva

[10] Equality for Women, World Bank, 2003, see p.134

[11] Razavi, Shahrashoub and Carol Miller (1995) From WID to GAD: Conceptual Shifts in the Women and Development Discourse. Geneva: UNRISD (Part II: Rethinking Women in Development pgs 12 – 32). p.20  

[12] Ibid, p. 26, p. 29

[13] Moser, C. (1989). Gender planning in the third world: Meeting practical and strategic gender needs. World development (pp. 1799). Great Britain: Pergamon Press. p.1118

[14] Jain, p. 57.

[15] Ramphele, 1997, `Whither feminism` p. 36 in Transitions, Environments, Translations:feminism in international Politics, edited by J.W. Scott. New York: Routledge. quoted in Scott, Joan Wallach (2000) “Some Reflections on Gender and Politics” in Myra Marx Ferree et al. (eds.) Revisioning Gender. Sage: London. p.87

[16] Ibid. p.87

[17] Ibid. p. 88

[18] Jaquette, J. S., & Summerfield, G. (Eds.). (2006). Women and gender equity in development theory and practice : Institutions, resources, and mobilization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press

12 Responses to “Concept paper 2: Gender Equality, Gender Equity”

  1. good evening,

    Clear concept about ,want to know more about this topic.


  2. Nadira Khanam Says:

    This is good paper to get understanding on gender equity and equality. My project is going to use gender lens in different phase of the project.

  3. Hosne Ara Ahmed Says:

    This article helps me to get clearer idea about gender equity and equality.

    Gender studies introduced as a subject in teacher education in Bangladesh.So the teacher educators as well as the trainees will get better understanding of gender equity and equality.

    Thank you.

  4. ayesha Says:

    its a an informative concept paper. i wanted know who is the author of this paper.

  5. Tinashe Nyanhete Says:

    Thanks for this useful information it helps in my field of study which is peace and governance.

  6. Mutobokho stephen Says:

    Am so grateful for this information because it has helped me to aquire prior knowledge on gender issues. Thanks.

  7. loius Says:

    good stuff. i am a student doing grnder studies and your paper has been of ernomous aid. God bless and keep it up!!!!!

  8. jack Says:

    well researched.bravo.can you focus more on the media aspect

  9. DENIS NZOWA Says:

    very nice work and it help us to answer questions about gender in colleges

  10. Jetty Smith Carter - Liberia Says:

    Jetty Smith Carter – Liberia

    Thanks a million for this research. Without a gender background, your research paper has helped me so much in sourcing out some useful information. God bless you.

  11. Ayesha Akhter JAhan Says:

    Good work . Its help us to get a clear conception about gender equity and equality. Thanks a lot.


  12. Very clear and straight to the point, l had a confusion on the use of the atwo words Burt now am cleared. A million thanks to the author.

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