Equality versus Equity: What's the difference as we #EmbraceEquity for IWD 2023 and beyond?

The words equity and equality are often used interchangeably. 

Etymologically, the root word they share is aequus, meaning “even” or “fair” or “equal” - which led to equity being from the Latin aequitas, and equality from aequalitas. Yet, despite these similarities, equity and equality are inherently different concepts, and the IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme seeks to help forge worldwide conversation about this important issue and its impact.  

So, what's the difference between equity and equality - and why is it important to understand and acknowledge this?

Defining equality and equity

Equality and equity
Image source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Let's start with a basic definition of each word.

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.

Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

Examples of key differences

Let's hear from Belgium-based YouTuber Tamara Makoni, founder of Kazuri Consulting as she clearly explains the difference between equality and equity - and why it truly matters to #EmbraceEquity.

"Imagine that you are babysitting two children, and they are hungry. You go to the fruit bowl, and you start to pick up two apples to give them to each child. However, you remember at the last moment that one of the children is allergic to apples. Instead, you reach for one apple and one banana, and that way you're being fair," explains Tamara. "You still give one piece of fruit to each child, but you're also being equitable because you're giving each child a legitimate way of satisfying their hunger. If you had gone for two apples, the child who's allergic to the apple would on the surface have a way to satisfy their hunger, but they couldn't do that without getting ill. In this way you're being fair," says Tamara. "You're giving each child a piece of fruit but, you're also giving them something that is in line with their individual needs so they can be successful."

Articulating the difference between equality and equity

Equity can be defined as giving everyone what they need to be successful. In other words, it's not giving everyone the exact same thing. If we give everyone the exact same thing, expecting that will make people equal, it assumes that everyone started out in the same place - and this can be vastly inaccurate because everyone isn't the same.

The concept of 'fairness' can get tricky as it's often assumed that 'being fair' means that everybody gets the same thing. Often, this has been taught when we were growing up, but 'fairness' really only works when we're all the same to start out with. 

Early examples in history

One of the earliest examples of equity is found in Medieval England, when English courts settled disputes according to Common Law. Justice was uniform and consistent, but not necessarily fair. For example, if two people both commit theft, but the stolen items have different value, should they receive the same punishment? Since then, Courts have adopted the principle of equity, taking a case-by-case approach to consider differing circumstances.

Equality and equity as political principles

Equity International Women's Day

In political terms, equality is one of the foundations of democracy. Equality is based on the belief that all people should have the same opportunities for a happy life. Equity is linked to the ideal that success is based on personal efforts and not social status.

However, ongoing conversation highlights whether equality is enough, and if instead we should look towards equity as a better principle to progress society. Equity acknowledges that people don't begin life in the same place, and that circumstances can make it more difficult for people to achieve the same goals.

Inequity affects many people, but most commonly historically it has marginalized communities such as women, people of color, disabled people, the economically disadvantaged, and those from the LGBTQ+ community.

The goal of equity is to change systemic and structural barriers that get in the way of people's ability to thrive.  

Equity-based verses equality-based solutions

People who push for equality-based solutions to social issues may believe in impartiality, and that there should be no difference in services and policies.

However, equity-based solutions take into account the diverse lived experiences of individuals and communities, adapting services and policies according to these differences.

Equity is a long-term and sustainable solution, and is a process for addressing imbalanced social systems.

Applying equity to women's advancement

Women's equity

Equality focuses on providing all genders with equal opportunities, such as a woman's right to vote. Yet, women often require more than a level playing field. They need to belong in a global culture that actively promotes and supports them in all aspects of their life, from education to the workplace to health.

Gender is intersectional, and women as a group are truly diverse. Policies that benefit white women, for example, may not benefit women of color due to historical or current inequalities. A shift from gender equality to the process of gender equity is required for meaningful progress.

Working towards true inclusion

Let's hear more about equity versus equality from Cammy Watkins from conversations for change group, Inclusive Communities.

So make it your mission to educate friends, family, colleagues, and the community on the need for equity.

If you truly believe in forging an equal and inclusive world, then you will truly believe in the need for the world to better understand the difference between equity and equality.

Let's #EmbraceEquity - together!

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