Equity Versus Equality – What Is The Difference And Why Does It Matter?
Our DEI series continues with an inquisitive look at Equity. I hope you will also read part one, the introduction, and part two, a deep dive into diversity. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of DEI, and one that often garners the strongest negative feeling because at face value, it appears unfair until one digs deeper. A lot of this sentiment is because equity is often confused with equality.
Many illustrations have attempted to improve understanding of equity versus equality. Organizations implementing DEI programs are also evolving from an equality-focused to an equity-focused approach with better understanding of the differences and their impact on successful implementations.
One of the more common images (shown below) demonstrates the difference between these terms. Three people of varying heights are peering over a fence to watch a sports game. If each of these individuals is given equal resources (equality) – a pedestal in this case – the tallest person is still at an advantage, while the shortest person is still at a disadvantage despite the pedestal provided. However, when an equitable approach is taken, each person has the opportunity to access resources with consideration to their specific needs. This results in all three individuals being able to see above the fence.
A similar version of this concept comes into play with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, giving wheelchairs to every citizen (equality) doesn’t meet the objective of removing the mobility barrier for those who are immobile. However, giving wheelchairs to those who are immobile (equity) provides them with access to a resource that creates the opportunity for access to resources for mobility. Creating equity initiatives does not mean the individual won’t work at it, but without the opportunity, the individual does not have an option to work at something. This is what equity does – creates opportunity by providing resources with the consideration for individuals’ or groups’ specific needs or disadvantages.
Equality is defined as “the state of being equal.” The criticisms that exist when evaluating equality as a principle identifies that just because something is “equal” does not always mean it is “fair and just.” The trouble that arises is defining what it means to be fair and just. Measuring what makes something equal may seem more straightforward; everybody is given one pedestal of the same dimensions. However, measuring when something is fair and just, is not as easily accomplished.
Equity takes into consideration the individual needs of those involved and applies a treatment that resolves any undue disadvantages that exist between different groups of people.
The overlap between these terms is their intended goal to “address imbalanced social systems.” The Milken Institute School of Public Health published a helpful article in November 2020 that focused on this topic. In another illustration, we see two individuals with unequal access to a shared system, an apple tree. First, we see how equality may impact this scenario when each person is given a ladder of the same dimensions. Without considering that the apple tree is not producing apples at the same rate on either side, the equal resource provided to both parties does not resolve the imbalance. When targeted resources that consider the conditions and needs of each party are provided, then we see results where both individuals have access to collect and consume apples. However, the true source of the imbalance in this scenario has not been resolved. Repairing and reforming the system, applies a treatment to the apple tree that more evenly distributes the fruit being produced. This is where justice comes into play, when a social system is reformed to eliminate the source of imbalance. But the topic of justice is another matter entirely, beyond the scope of our blog today.
As we are seeing through our DEI series so far, it is important not to implement these philosophies a la carte. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are principles of a holistic program. Each pillar serves to enhance the goal of DEI such that the synergistic result is greater than the sum of its parts. In our last installment of this series, we will focus on inclusion. Without inclusion, diversity and equity will ultimately fail. Why? Stay tuned to find out in our final installment of the series!