On gender parity, equality, and equity; the UNESCO Education for All initiative; and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #5

This is a discussion post I wrote on 2018-02-23 for Dr. Judit Szente‘s course, EDF 6855: Equitable Educational Opportunity & Life Chances: A Cross-National Analysis, at University of Central Florida.

The fifth Education for All (EFA) goal seeks gender parity and equality in both primary and secondary school (UNESCO, 2015). Although this was originally targeted for 2015, less than half of countries reached gender parity by this time. Nonetheless, progress toward parity and equality is accelerating.

Before proceeding, I think it is important to understand differences between parity, equality, and equity. Parity merely focuses on equal enrollment and completion rates—in this case, between males and females. If a country had 10% of males and 10% of females enrolled in school, it would have achieved gender parity even though 80% of children are not going to school (a horrible outcome!). Equality means treating everyone the same. Equity means giving everyone equal opportunities by catering to their needs (see Sun, 2014 for a more thorough explanation including a cartoon!). In part, this is likely why UNESCO (2016) focuses on equity, which is more holistic. On the other hand, the United Nations (2017) goal for gender equality promotes equality via equal access, which is less useful due to its limited scope.

Counter-intuitively, equity is achieved through inequality, but in a manner opposite to the inequality we typically see. Countries that allow the poorest families equal access to schools without fees or onerous paperwork requirements (e.g., producing a birth certificate) may have achieved equality, but to achieve equity you have to give extra support to the poorest families, particularly if they have girls. This might involve offering transportation, text messages or home visits to address their needs and encourage them to go to school, providing sanitation and hygiene products, and even in-home teaching. The goal is not equality, but to “level the playing field,” so to speak, via equitable practices. In golf, giving a less-skilled player a “handicap” (i.e., extra points) makes the game equitable by counter-acting the players’ underlying inequalities of skill by introducing countervailing inequality. The poorest families, and particularly the poorest girls, need disproportionately high levels of funding and support to countervail the advantages that boys and wealthier families receive. Thus, paradoxically, equity is achieved through inequality.

UNESCO (2016) recognizes this paradox by focusing on equity for those with disabilities, language barriers, and victims of “forced displacement” (p. 271; e.g., refugees and those who have moved due to natural disasters, unfavorable political or economic climate, etc.). Someone with a language barrier, for instance, might require an interpreter to achieve equity with other students, even though this means the student receives an unequally high amount of school resources. In principle, this reminds me of the phrase popularized by Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Those with more abilities produce more and should provide more for others, while those who need more due to disadvantages (e.g., poverty, disability, etc.) should receive what they need to succeed. Of course, this ideal has never been realized for humans at a wide scale, but it does summarize what equity would look like. At the same time, equity is undesirable if it results in everyone being poor or disadvantaged.

Overall, potent criticisms of the sustainable development goals are their focus on economic growth, lack of ambition and cohesiveness, and lack of sustainability with respect to earth’s resources and climate change (Koehler, 2016). One example Koehler gives of a lack of ambition in the preceding Millennium Development Goals is to reduce “at least by half, the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimension”—even when a proportional reduction would preserve the underlying unequal proportions (i.e., more women than men in poverty). Moreover, not prioritizing planetary sustainability and climate change unfairly impacts women, in part because they are more likely to work the rural farmland and fisheries that will be decimated by climate change, and also because they are more impacted by natural disasters and other ecological damage that anthropogenic climate change produces.


Koehler, G. (2016). Tapping the Sustainable Development Goals for progressive gender equity and equality policy? Gender & Development, 24, 53–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2016.1142217

Sun, A. (2014, September 16). Equality is not enough: What the classroom has taught me about justice [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/

UNESCO. (2015). “Chapter 5: Goal 5: Gender parity and equality.” EFA global monitoring report 2015: Education for all 2000–2015: Achievements and challenges. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002322/232205e.pdf

UNESCO. (2016). “Chapter 14: Target 4.5: Equity.” Global education monitoring report 2016: Education for people and the planet: Creating sustainable futures for all. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002457/245752e.pdf

United Nations. (2017). Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

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