I recently came across an article about Equity. Equity is the latest buzz-word in the field of Equal Rights, Prejudice and Discrimination. If you’re still getting to grips with Equality, you’re behind the curve and need to catch up. The article had an explanation of the difference between Equity and Equality and It went something like this:

“Equality is inviting everyone to a party where only classical music is played, Equity is giving the partygoers a playlist that gives options to everyone.”

I could immediately see that there was a difference but, other than superficially, it wasn’t obvious what it was. So, I decided to dig around and see if I could get a better understanding. I always start one of these missions with context and definitions. The context is how we treat other people, what we do to them and for them, how our actions affect others. A good definition of equality is ‘a state of sameness’ whereas equity is ‘a state of fairness’. When we do anything to anything we change its state and that applies to people. OK so far but not too much help in understanding the example. How is inviting everyone to a party not fair and how is giving everyone the same playlist not treating them in the same way? Why are they not both examples of equal treatment and both examples of equity of treatment? Then I came across this other explanation: 3 people of different heights are trying to look over a fence. Equality is giving them the same height box to stand on, but it only works for the tall one. Equity is giving them boxes of different heights so that they can all look over the fence. Clearly, there’s something in this, but what? I could see that giving everyone the same size box didn’t solve the problem for them all, it wasn’t fair on the little person or the medium person. But, surely, giving one person a bigger box than the other is not necessarily fair either?

In trying to understand differences, it can help to also look at similarities. For example, apples and oranges are both fruits, they are both edible, they are about the same size. They differ in their colour, feel and taste. Equity and equality are both states, in that respect they are no different. They differ in what they are states of, fairness or sameness. The difference between the options in the two examples is not the difference between equity and equality, it is the difference between two states, each of which could be equal or equitable or neither or both.

Looking again at the two examples, it became clear that all the end states are potentially states of equality, they are just different states. We can judge equality by observation. It’s what is equal, what’s the same that’s different in each state. In the first example, the first equal state is that everyone has the same thing, an invite to the same party. The second option is an equal state as well, they all have the same playlist to choose from. In the second example, the first state is one of equality, they have all gone up by the same amount. The second is also an equal state, they can all see over the fence, they have the same view. So, all 4 new states are examples of equality or sameness, what is different is what the sameness is. It is not that one is equality and the other is equity, so, what is equity?

We come back to the definition that equity is a state of fairness. Whether the 4 new states in the examples are states of fairness or not is a matter of subjective judgement and depends on perception. All the states could be seen as fair depending on your point of view. The different end states could illustrate different states of fairness as well as different states of sameness. In both examples, the second state seems fairer to me than the first because they satisfy the desires of all the people involved in a way which THEY would individually perceive to be more desirable. The answer to the Equality/Equity difference question is straightforward and is adequately answered by the definitions. Neither example adds to understanding the difference between equity and equality. What they can do is help our understanding of both equity and equality by showing that states of equality are not necessarily states of equity and vice versa. It is not the case that, in each example, one option is a state of equality and the other a state of equity. Every state must be judged on its own merits against both definitions. All 4 states can be judged for both their equality and equity and can be either, neither or both. For example, looking at the second example, giving everyone the same size box is a state of sameness, equality, but not a state of fairness, equity. Giving individuals the ability to see over the fence is a state of sameness, equality, and a state of fairness, equity.

To come back to the context of how we treat people. There is clearly a difference between treating people the same and treating them fairly. Treating them the same is relatively easy and will keep you out of trouble but it may not be considered fair and may not achieve the outcome which you or they desire. Treating people fairly is much harder because it often means treating them differently which may not be seen as fair by all. Choosing which you do is a matter of judgement, deciding which outcome is the most appropriate for the given situation, a particular set of circumstances. A smart-arse (ass in the US) may say something like “Equity is an equal outcome”. Someone smart might say “Fairness is doing what you can to ensure that every individual can achieve the same desirable result”. Focussing on outcomes, the new state that you are trying to achieve, is one way to square the circle. Put yourself in the position of those who will be affected by your actions. What you do will change their state. Decide what outcome, state or result would be individually and collectively fair for all involved and do what is necessary for each individual to achieve that outcome regardless of whether what you do is the same for all or not. If you do that, the outcome should be both equal and equitable without ever knowing or caring what the difference is.