Choose Your Words Wisely

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By Chris Howard-Williams

I believe in the importance of the words we use.  Perhaps this is why, one of my first weeks working in the Women’s Center, I noticed something interesting about our mission statement: “The mission of the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is to advocate, educate, and provide support services for the advancement of women’s equity on campus and within the community at large (emphasis mine).”  It’s a small thing, but for some reason, it struck me that the mission statement used the word equity as opposed to equality, and it immediately got me thinking.  Was there a reason for the specific choice of words?

A quick Google search turned up an article from Forbes that very succinctly describes the difference between gender equality and gender equity.  Gender equality does not mean that women and men will become the same, but rather that their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not be dependent on whether they were born female or male.  Gender equity, however, means fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. It understands that, while equality is the ultimate goal, there may need to be some “leveling of the playing field” in order for equality to be achieved.  It is the concept that “fair does not always mean equal”.

So, why is this distinction important?  Well, in my mind’s eye, I see it like a road map.  Gender equality is the destination we want to reach, but gender equity is the route we have to take to get there.  As much as we may want equality between the genders, we have to realize that we aren’t there yet and we have to do some work in order to arrive. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, put out by the World Economic Forum, ranks the United States as 49th out of 144 countries in their ability to close the gender gap in their country. As shocking as this statistic is, it is even more disheartening to learn that the 2013 report ranked the US as 23rd (out of 136 countries ranked that year) on the list. We not only have a gender gap problem … it’s getting worse!  And according to the 2017 report, it will take 217 years at the present course to achieve gender equity!

So, is one little word important?  It absolutely is!  While “equality” is a good reminder of where we want to be, “equity” is the wake-up call that we aren’t there yet.  As Dr. Nancy Southern puts it in a blog post, “most people don’t see how important (gender equity) is to creating a healthy society.”  She goes on to argue that we need to change the conversation in America to “how we can create the institutional, economic, cultural and other conditions so that women can equally contribute their knowledge, skills, and experience to creating a better society.”  The truth is, without equity, we are missing out on a big part of our potential as a society, and that’s a lot of weight bound up in just one simple word.

So, choose your words wisely … they may just be the keys we need to unlock our future!