Everyone from former First Lady Michelle Obama to actress Emma Watson has spoken about gender equality in recent years. While these prominent voices have helped create awareness of the issue, more work needs to be done to reach a point where gender equality is simply the norm.
What is Gender Equality?
Gender equality is a state in which one’s gender does not determine one’s opportunities, freedoms, or importance. Gender parity – a measure of gender balance in a given situation – and gender equity – allocating resources and power evenly between men and women – are tools to achieve gender equality. According to the UN Development Programme Gender Inequality Index, there is no country where women have equal or greater freedoms and resources than men. While many nations surveyed have made progress towards equality, several have stagnated and a few notable cases, like Haiti, have actually seen backsliding. Data is not even available for all countries, shrouding the issue in some mystery.
Gender equality cannot be fully understood without intersectionality. Women face barriers for a number of reasons besides their sex – including their class, race, ability, sexual preference, gender identity, and a host of other factors. It requires that all women, regardless of these other factors, have equal opportunities. Intersectional feminism is the term that describes seeking equality for all women of every background.
Why is Gender Equality Important?
Gender Equality is so essential to advancing human progress that it is the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, as the UN explains:
“Advancing gender equality is critical to all areas of a healthy society, from reducing poverty to promoting the health, education, protection and the well-being of girls and boys.”
Indeed, the World Bank reports that if women made as much as men the global economy would benefit to the tune of $160.2 trillion loss. And an economic loss is not the only factor. Movements like eco-feminism have connected gender equality to other issues, like the environment. Elevating women to positions of leadership has many benefits for the world, women and men alike. Despite these facts, progress on gender inequality is unacceptably slow, according to a report from UN Women. Not only is SDG 5 not on target, it is impeding the progress of the other SDGs.
Steps to Achieving Gender Equality
There are many ways that donors can make an impact on gender equality. The UN offers suggestions oriented around SDG 5. The Guardian shared these 12 steps to gender equality:
Talk to women and girls. Involving women in girls in decision-making at every level will empower them to contribute valuable insights and lift up other women. Make sure that these women are heard, understood, and truly included in the process.
Let girls use mobile phones. Around the world being connected is vital to safety and economic mobility. Overcoming the infrastructure and cost challenges of expanding connectivity is essential to this process.
Stop child marriage and sexual harassment. Children who marry instead of attending school have few or no options to better their situation throughout their lives. Sexual harassment causes trauma and excludes women from being full participants in important settings like school, work, politics, and their communities.
Make education gender sensitive. Education systems that reinforce gender norms and stereotypes hurt gender equality and impede girls’ attempts to grow into different roles.
Raise aspirations of girls and their parents. Girls and their families need to believe in and desire great possibilities in order to achieve them.
Empower mothers. Mothers with resources and education send their daughters to school.
Give proper value to “women’s work.” Care work – like household chores, childcare, and care for the elderly and sick – is important, unpaid, and disproportionately completed by women. The expectation that this work should be completed for free, by women, severely limits their opportunities.
Get women into power. Women in power can break down barriers and allow for the success of other women. This means in every sector and every industry, including global health.
Encourage women into non-traditional vocations. Breaking stereotypes offers women new economic opportunity and freedom.
Work together. Massive, global undertakings like gender equality will not see progress if work is completed in silos.
Stop the violence. Violence against women keeps them from achieving their goals. Properly addressing domestic violence is essential.
Beware the backlash. It is important to remember that there are people who actively wish to maintain or increase the current level of gender equality. Ensuring that these individuals do not undo the progress that is made is crucial. One way to avoid this problem is to engage men for gender equality.
Since you are interested in Women and Girls, have you read these selections from Giving Compass related to impact giving and Women and Girls?
Gender Equality Issue Area: Women’s Health
Maternal health and related issues are causing unnecessary pain and death from the United States to Kenya. In the U.S., maternal health outcomes are actually deteriorating, even as infant mortality decreases. If overall care was declining, one would expect to see a corresponding increase in infant mortality, but this contrast in outcomes between women and their babies indicates that care for women in particular is being neglected. Black women have even worse maternal mortality outcomes, suffering simultaneously from the racism and sexism of the system.
In Kenya, obstetric fistula – a childbirth injury almost unheard of in the West, where protracted labor rarely goes unattended – is the cause of intense grief. The condition is understood as a curse or punishment for an unfaithful woman and she is often ostracized for years or decades until she dies or receives medical treatment. Unnecessary maternal deaths occur in both countries because the known medical treatments are not used to save women.
Menstruation is also a significant barrier around the globe. At least 500 million girls and women lack adequate facilities for menstrual health management. In India, this means that 23 percent of girls drop out of school. In the United States, the high cost of menstrual products is a burden on low-income women and girls.
Female-specific diseases like endometriosis receive relatively little attention. In spite of impacting 10 percent of women, endometriosis – the growth of uterine cells in the abdomen that causes pain and infertility – has no known cause or cure. Women wait an average of seven years for treatment from the onset of chronic symptoms.
Reproductive health has been heavily politicized to the detriment of women around the world. In the United States, access to reproductive healthcare varies dramatically between states, and overall the country scores poorly for reproductive healthcare. The Mexico City Policy, commonly known as the Global Gag Rule, restricts U.S. aid money from going to medical facilities that offer, mention, or refer abortions. It was most recently reinstated during President Donald Trump’s administration, and is impacting women.
Lipedema is a poorly understood chronic condition that primarily impacts women. The Lipedema Foundation was founded after one woman, Felicitie Daftuar, began to suffer from swelling in her limbs and learned that the condition was not properly understood, nor did it have a treatment regimen. According to Daftuar “If it affected men the way it affects women, there would be more research already.”
Natural Disasters and Conflicts
During storms, conflicts, and other forms of upheaval, women’s health needs are pressing, ranging from menstrual supplies to maternal care for pregnant women and reproductive services for rape victims. However, these things are often neglected. For example, Rohingya women fleeing Myanmar do not have sufficient access to reproductive care, furthering their suffering and trauma. One way to improve women’s outcomes in disasters is to increase the number of female surge staff, to help ensure that women get better care and are not re-victimized.
Other Medical Conditions
Even conditions that impact both men and women – cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, depression and Alzheimer’s disease – have a significant gender gap. Medical studies skew male, leaving women with prevention, diagnosis, and treatment strategies geared toward biologically different bodies. Women’s pain is not taken as seriously as men’s, leading to devastating outcomes. Women are less likely to receive painkillers than men, and when they do receive them, they have to wait longer – 65 minutes to receive an analgesic for acute abdominal pain in the ER in the United States, compared to 49 minutes for men. And while more women suffer from chronic pain conditions than men, the majority of studies on chronic pain have been conducted on men or male mice. Intersectionality comes into play as overweight women, women of color, and other marginalized and stigmatized groups are judged for multiple factors. That is why the California Wellness Foundation is focusing grant money specifically to improve health outcomes for women of color.
Gender Equality Issue Area: Education
The map below displays the gender parity of education. In the countries displayed in light green, girls can expect the same number of pre-primary education as boys. Pink indicates a disadvantage for girls, and blue indicates the same for boys. Darker colors display a more intense disadvantage.
Achieving true gender equality in education requires a number of different steps. First, girls must attend schools at the same rate as boys. Second, girls must have access to the same resources, classes, and advantages at as the boys. Sending girls to schools where they are relegated to female-specific areas and subjects does not advance gender equality. Education aid is only impactful for gender equality if girls receive education equally, and that is not always the case.
It’s also crucial to pay attention to areas of the world where conflict, cultural norms, teacher shortages and child marriage prevent girls from attending school. For example, in Ethiopia, two in five girls are married before the age of 18 and in the Central African Republic, there is one teacher for every 80 students.
In countries where girls and boys attend school at the same rate and have access to the same materials, gender equality in schools is still a problem. This problem cuts two ways, the first is that girls are less involved in STEM classes and other “traditionally masculine” activities that are technically available to them, but there are organizations working to increase girls’ and women’s participation in STEM. The second factor is the lagging performance of boys in early literacy. These problems are deeply interrelated, boy and girls perform to their expected ability level and are allowed to fall behind in ways that match gender expectations.
Gender Equality Issue Area: Employment
The gender gap in the workplace, particularly in the technology sector, is another glaring issue. Although work is being done to change the statistics, the needle remains largely unmoved. Jeff Raikes, co-founder of the Raikes Foundation, reflects that deeply ingrained beliefs and stereotypes send a message to women that they shouldn’t pursue certain careers. This gender gap has consequences, as emerging technologies like AI are shaped primarily by one gender. As the tech industry continues to boom and expand, increasing diversity can actually help companies meet their talent needs.
Around the world, attempts to get women into better financial situations can actually backfire. Microfinance aimed at empowering women often have the opposite effect. Women may be punished by the men in their lives who feel threatened by their economic empowerment. And in many places gaining a job only adds to a woman’s heavy burden of care work, which she usually retains as she undertakes other work.
In the United States, women face a pay gap of 20 cents on the dollar between men and women working full time, year-round. This number is once again complicated by factors like race and sexuality. Lesbians actually make more than straight women, but still less than gay men, who make less than straight men. While many argue that the gap exists because of choices – like choosing to take parental leave and low-paying careers – the fact is that these choices are also gendered. The expectation of women as primary caregivers for children, elderly, and sick relatives and the exclusion of women from high-paying field like tech – implicitly and explicitly – are part of the reason for the gap. But sexism in decision-making also plays a role. Paid family leave and changing gender norms can reduce the gap, which is closing slowly.
Gender Equality Efforts
There are many ways in which gender equality is being advanced around the world. Often, these efforts are championed by women. While each undertaking does not always succeed, the efforts are important to understanding the movement.
At COP 23, delegates approved the Gender Action Plan, a 2-year plan to involve women and men in all stages of the Paris climate agreement equally. This is an important step in achieving gender equity in decision making, involving women in the process integrally.
Indigenous women are working to advance themselves and their communities around the world. There are countless examples of their leadership creating change. Indigenous communities face overwhelming historical trauma and enduring racism. Their efforts are often overturned by oppressive governments.
Ways You Can Work Toward Gender Equality
Gender equality can be a difficult issue to work on locally, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, it can be difficult to convince people that sexism persists and must be dealt with. But there are ways, such as investing in organizations that are women-led and have grassroots initiatives
Sophia Cole at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shares more ways funders can work at the local level to make progress towards gender equality.
Fortunately, data suggests that gender equity is both a moral and financially advantageous investing strategy. Gender-lens impact investing is a rising practice in which investors target female-run and women-friendly businesses. It works to close the gap in investments, most of which go to male-dominated companies.
Advocacy work is another way to advance gender equality and ensure that equity is enshrined in the system. Illinois recently passed a law to provide police with training and resources to better address rape cases and support survivors.
Efforts to bring gender equity in land ownership, agricultural production, employment, care work can all bring us closer to gender equality, but a sustained effort will be needed to reach that point.
Who You Should Know in the Gender Equality Space
These organizations, which are featured on Giving Compass, are explicitly working to advance gender equality.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is a national organization working to end sexual violence. RAIIN offers support to survivors and works to prevent violence.
Philanthropy Women is a resource for women (and men) who want to support women through donations.
The UN is working to promote gender equality as part of the sustainable development goals for a better world.
Days for Girls works to empower women economically while increasing access to menstrual products. Projects like this help women learn business skills and allow them to move freely throughout the month.
The Global Fund for Women directs funds to women-led organizations around the globe and is one of the leading foundations for gender equality.
Gender Equality: Related Reading
Find out how donors can make an impact for sexual violence victims.
Read this comprehensive framework for improving the lives of women and girls from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy.
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