Equity and equality have been used interchangeably. So much so that it can get confusing. The two words almost look the same, but are they?
In this article, we'll take a look at the meaning and differences between equity and equality. We will also share some real-world examples of equity and equality.
What is Equality?
Equality means giving the same amount and type of resources to everyone. Typically, the purpose of equality is to maintain harmonious relations. The harmony of relationships is based on reciprocity and balanced social ties.
In other words, You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.
In 17th and 18th century Europe, the Age of Enlightenment promoted liberty, reason and the scientific method. As the movement grew, philosophers considered equality within society. This created a paradigm shift at a time when the Catholic Church and Monarchies were in power. Concepts of equal rights and equal treatment started revolutions. Eventually, equality became the core principle of many nation's constitutions.
At first glance, equality might seem like a fair deal. Wouldn't everyone want to have equal access to education or healthcare?
Equality in a classroom means every student uses the same materials for their studies. Equality in the workplace means every employee uses the same tools and resources to do their job well.
Yet, when we look deeper into the matter, not everyone has similar needs. Being given the same resources does not necessarily guarantee a fair outcome. In fact, equality-based treatment may become an obstacle or punishment for those who have different needs. Instead, people will need to work doubly or triply hard to overcome the obstacle and achieve the same outcome as others.
For example, people with varying physical abilities may need different tools or materials to study or work well. A blind student cannot use the same material as other students. A physically disabled worker can't use the same desk as other colleagues.
Equality-based programs may have started with good intentions. But in a diverse society, such programs may be perceived as unequal. Companies may invest in creating minority support groups for women or LGBTQ+ employees, to demonstrate solidarity and fairness. Yet, access resources of these groups are best limited to specific employees. Otherwise, the group support may not reach the right audience. With resources spread thin, the program may not achieve its goal or serve its purpose.
While these programs aim to achieve equality, what these programs are actually aiming for is equity.
What is Equity?
Equity is the fair treatment and allocation of resources in consideration of unequal people in society. In other words, equity occurs when resources are shared based on each person's needs. Equity helps to level the playing field.
Each person is unique. Everyone faces different challenges, is offered different opportunities and have access to different resources. As such, each people encounter diverse barriers to succeed. The goal of equity is to eliminate these barriers by providing support and resources based on individual needs.
For example, a blind student is provided audio and braille reading materials for their studies. A wheel-chair bound employee is provided with an ergonomic desk that is accessible from the car park.
Why is it important to know the difference?
While the meaning of equality and equity is different, they work hand in hand. Equality cannot be achieved without equity.
To create a fair and just world, our actions will need to focus on equity. With equity, everyone receives the right resources and support based on their individual needs. Thus, the outcome is equality, fair and just.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation1 created the graphic above that depicts the difference between equality and equity well.
When the approach focuses on equality, everyone is provided with the same thing no matter their needs and abilities. As in the image, everyone rides the same type of bicycle. Bicycles can be so much fun to ride! Yet, when the bicycle is not customised to the size and ability of the rider, cycling can be a challenge and dangerous! The approach is equality, yet inequity remains.
But, if the rider uses a bicycle customised to their size and ability, the outcome is that everyone can enjoy riding a bike. The approach is equity, and the result is equality.
To further illustrate equity and equality, we will look at some real-world examples in different sectors of society.
Equity in Education
Higher education offers greater social mobility, especially to disadvantaged groups. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) runs the Programme for International Student Assessment, also known as PISA. PISA measures reading, mathematics and science knowledge of 15-year-olds from over 60 countries. The purpose of PISA is to keep governments accountable for their educational policies.
PISA's results indicate the instructional quality and learning equity of a country's education system. A high score shows that the government is providing effective and equitable educational support to their students and teachers2.
In another example, TzuChi, a Taiwanese Buddhist non-profit organisation, in the collaboration of the local Turkish government, opened the Menahel International School for Syrian refugee children. Access to school is not only an opportunity to learn, it is to provide an opportunity to Syrian refugee children for greater social mobility. It is giving these children a chance to lead a life of dignity, maintain their Syrian roots and adapt to Turkish life. Currently, over 1600 students is attending this school3.
Equality in the Workplace
The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, or EUROFOUND, commissioned research that looked into promoting gender equality in the workplace4. The study analysed the gender equality programmes and their impact on human resources in companies based in seven countries.
Based on 21 case studies, the research found that efforts to create a gender-equal workplace are complex and challenging. At best, pockets of equality within the organisation can be achieved. Yet, the sustainability of gender equality remains questionable. A change management approach, where equity and equality are embedded in all levels of an organisation, is required.
LeanIn, a book by Sheryl Sandberg, advocated for greater gender equality in the workplace. The book became a global movement. LeanIn5 is a worldwide community with a mission to
help women achieve their ambitions and work to create an equal world.
LeanIn supports the global movement and community through circles. Circles are self-led support groups for women to gather, learn and support each other in achieving their career ambition. LeanIn Circles provide guidance on how to organise a circle. They now have more than 50,000 members in 184 countries.
Equity in Healthcare
World Health Organization (WHO)6 defines equity as
the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically.
In terms of healthcare, WHO recognises that health inequities occur due to multiple factors and not only the lack of equal access. As such, WHO maintains a Health Equity Monitor, a database containing demographic, geographic, and socio-economic factors contributing to health inequity.
Researchers in Tanzania looked into the equity of healthcare financing7. The poor use public care facility, while the rich prefers higher quality and higher cost facilities. Researchers concluded that reforming health financing can improve equity, where everyone can have access to much-needed facilities. The reform involves the promotion and integration of national health insurance with the healthcare system. Researchers recommended further subsidies for the poor through efficient use of taxation.
Illusions of Equity and Equality
As people become aware of equity and equality, we need to be mindful of its potential misuse. This misuse aims to maintain the status quo and to keep the privileged group in power.
The illusion of equality occurs when positive characteristics are emphasised in the disadvantaged group. In contrast, negative traits are stressed in the privileged group. The emphasis on opposite aspects helps sustain the belief that society is just8.
For example, wealthy expatriates complain about their stressful work and the need to sacrifice family time. The stressful work is needed to keep appearances and to stay ahead in their careers. Locals with lower wages have the opportunity to lead a balanced work-life style and to spend more quality time with family. The negative aspect of expatriate life is compared with local colleagues' positive balanced life. This reasoning does not address issues of wealth and job access inequality between foreign and local talent. Thus, the status quo continues. High-paying jobs will continue to be given to foreign talent, while local talents are deprived of career opportunities.
The illusion of equity stems from stereotypes and social judgements. Stereotypes are used to paint the picture of an equitable and balanced society. On the contrary, inequity in society remains because stereotypes are accepted as a fact.
For example, low-wage migrant workers are usually stereotyped as poorly-educated and uncivilised. They are perceived most suitable for dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs, also known as 3D jobs8. The better educated and civilised locals recognise the need for low-wage migrant workers. Such workers are required for the nation's growth and 3D services, such as construction, sanitation, retail and many others. Some known examples are Bangladeshi and Nepali construction workers in the Middle East. Also, Filipino maids in East and Southeast Asia.
Equity and equality are different in their definition. We need both equity and equality. Understanding the difference between the two is the first step towards creating a fair and just society.
It doesn't stop here.
We need to educate ourselves on the inequalities and inequities in the world, most importantly in our society. Find out where are the issues in your community. Investigate, talk to community members and leaders.
Finally, when you get a grasp of the pertinent issues in your community, take action.
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- OECD (2018), Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.
- Tzu Chi. (2018, December 13). A School for Syrian Children in Istanbul Becomes Official. Tzu Chi.
- Olgiati, E., Shapiro, G., European Union, & European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2002). Promoting gender equality in the workplace. EUR-OP.
- Lean In.
- World Health Organisation (n.d.). Health Equity Monitor Database. The Global Health Observatory.
- Mtei, G., Makawia, S., Ally, M., Kuwawenaruwa, A., Meheus, F., & Borghi, J. (2012). Who pays and who benefits from health care? An assessment of equity in health care financing and benefit distribution in Tanzania. Health Policy and Planning, 27(suppl 1), i23–i34.
- Jost, J. T., & Kay, A. C. (2005). Exposure to benevolent sexism and complementary gender stereotypes: Consequences for specific and diffuse forms of system justification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(3), 498-509.
- Dirty, dangerous and demeaning. (2021). In Wikipedia.