Equity or Equality? Which do we actually mean?
Let’s explore two important and often conflated terms
Oh, no. Did someone mention equity when they really meant equality? Or vice versa?
Two of the most often conflated basic terms in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space are equity and equality. These two terms, while sounding similar, have very different meanings.
Let’s start with equality.
Equality conversations evoke discussions of those basic things that many find as the core values of the United States. Even back to the Declaration of Independence where “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Obviously, this statement didn’t apply for all people, or even all men, and equality seems to be still a work in progress.
Nevertheless, equality is central to the foundational concepts of interest in the United States and in other areas of the world in many ways. Everyone has the chance at the rags to riches storyline. If everyone is equal, then everything is perceived to be fine. However, not everyone starts at the same place or has the same obstacles in their path. That chance at the rags to riches storyline has very different odds from one person to the next. This becomes more of a perceived equality. So, what does equality really mean?
Merriam-Webster defines equality as the quality or state of being equal: the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc. Merriam-Webster provides three examples, including racial/gender equality, the ideals of liberty and equality, and women’s struggle for equality. A quick Google search provides a similar definition (via Oxford Languages) of the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. Opportunities seem to be an important addition there, or rather, “etc.” was doing a lot of important work in the Merriam-Webster definition.
Still, equality is essential for many concepts in the DEI space. Equality applies in conversations like marriage equality and gender equality, a fundamental human right and one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In the workplace or in educational spaces, equality means that everything is the same for each person. Overall, this is an interesting proposition. Deadlines are the same for everyone. Learning environments are equal across the class. Workplace activities are identical for every employee. However, this perceived ideal falls short in considering important disparities. Complete equality fails to account for individual needs, situations, or conditions. Not reaching a state of equality (for example, with gender-based pay gaps, or similar patterns) is certainly a failure of the system or organization. Reaching equality, then, is essential. However, equality is not always a stopping point on this important progression.
A good rule of thumb is that “equality” is important, but not an effective goal in educational spaces or workplaces.
Equity, in contrast, centers around being just or fair: dealing fairly and equally with everyone, according to Merriam-Webster. Equity takes a more nuanced approach to equality, by considering circumstances and situations and then tailoring or adjusting to meet those circumstances and situations for the individual or group. Equity is not simply everything being equal for everyone.
In practice, there are multiple versions of perceived equity in the workplace or educational spaces. There are the “bare minimums,” for example. These are the legally mandated minimum efforts for equity, for example, ADA accommodations in the workplace to facilitate individuals with disabilities through the hiring process or the successful completion of their jobs. Similar actions for the educational space are found in student disabilities services offices on campuses across the country.
Equity in practice, and going beyond the bare minimum, in educational spaces or the workplace looks like individual or group considerations for influential circumstances and situations. It looks like extensions and appropriate arrangements for students and accommodations for workers based on situations in which equality itself may create or entrench disparities. One of the common arguments against equitable practices in the classroom or workplace is that it creates unfair advantages for individuals. However, this is not the case and the argument itself may be more centered around jealousy. Equity creates situations in which all individuals are able to survive and thrive to complete their coursework or continue in their workplace duties.
A useful guide is that “equity” is often a more advanced and appropriate form of “equality,” by accounting for key considerations.
The Peace Corps provides a useful visual representation of the difference between equity and equality. This is a variation on a common visual representation used and reproduced by many organizations. Essentially, three individuals of different heights are trying to look over a fence. When everything is equal, all three have a single block of the same size to stand on. Two can see over the fence and one cannot. With equity, each has the size block they need (or don’t need) and all can see over the fence. The Peace Corps representation summarizes this as “EQUALITY = SAMENESS” and “EQUITY = FAIRNESS.” It’s an effective and useful memory tool.
Something is not equitable if it is simply equal, then. Conversely, equitable doesn’t just mean equal, but it does create more appropriate circumstances for individuals across a variety of situations to survive and thrive.