Across the world, people in urban (rather than rural) areas are more likely to support gender equality – in education, employment and leadership, for example. Why is this? And what does it tell us about the causes of egalitarian social change? Drawing on comparative, rural-urban ethnographic research from Zambia, as well as a geographically diverse literature, this paper emphasises two features of the urban: heterogeneity and proximity to services. It suggests that urban heterogeneity (owing to multiple, intersecting migration channels) increases the likelihood of exposure to women undertaking socially valued, masculine roles. Such exposure seems to undermine gender ideologies and foster a positive feedback loop, with growing flexibility in gender divisions of labour. Additionally, greater proximity to health clinics and police appears to enhance urban women's ability to control their fertility and secure external support against gender-based violence. However, the urban is not inevitably disruptive. Experiences of the urban are shaped by international and national policies, macro-economic conditions and individual circumstances. By exploring rural-urban differences, this paper seeks to contribute to the rich, existing literature on the drivers of change and continuity in gender ideologies and practices, as well as the social significance of urbanising Africa.