You might see the terms “equality” and “equity” used interchangeably, especially around conversations promoting fairness when it comes to human rights issues (like gender, race, sexual orientation) or social justice (like education, healthcare, politics). But—heads up—the terms are not actually the same. And there are some significant key distinctions you should know. Here’s the difference between equity and equality.
What is equality?
Equality is providing everyone with the same resources, support and/or opportunities across the board. True equality means there would be no difference in treatment despite gender, race, economic background, etc. A popular example of equality used in the correct form is equal pay or the notion that all genders and races should be paid the same amount for the same work, as opposed to, you know, the historical gender and racial pay gap. (Like how, as of 2018, women only make 85 cents on the dollar compared to men, and Black women only 63 cents to the dollar compared to non-Hispanic white men as of 2019.) If there was equality, the same people working the same jobs would be making the same dollar to dollar ratio. Boom. End of story.
What is equity?
On the other hand, equity promotes fairness by taking into account circumstances instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. An equitable solution is based on providing the appropriate resources, support and/or opportunities based on a person’s needs. For instance, it might be a great idea to provide computers and internet to every home in the neighborhood (aka equality), but equity would take into account what is happening in each home—maybe some homes already have working computers and internet access. And maybe some households need access to free WiFi, a communal space to work or even have someone come over to teach them how to navigate a computer. And what about unhoused people in the neighborhood? At the end of the day, equity in this venture would mean creating the opportunity for everyone to have access to computers and internet in a way that makes sense individually.
What is the difference between equity and equality?
This popular illustration above showcases the distinction between the terms. The side-by-side images show a family of three watching a baseball game. But the difference between equality and equity will determine how resources (boxes) are divided during this event.
In the equality illustration, in the name of fairness, everyone gets the same resources regardless of circumstance or need, which ignores the issue of individual height, and winds up not solving the problem. However, in the equity illustration on the right, the solution caters to specific needs in the name of fairness for all. Why should the tallest family member get a box to stand on if he can already see over the fence and if taking one means the smallest family member can’t see?
Can you have equity without equality?
Short answer: No. Ideally, through the process of equitable actions, we can achieve equality. Equitable problem solving can fill in the gaps that are often overlooked in the name of equality, because the same answer is not always enough or right for everyone. Like in the baseball game illustration, sure, everyone has the same box, but is there really equality if not everyone can see over the fence?
In a world where racist, gender, ableist, classist and sexual orientation bias has systemic and deep roots in our society, we cannot reach fairness without understanding and addressing inherent inequalities along the way.
Bottom line: Equality is the dream destination. Equity is the way we can get there.