Equality and equity: Two familiar terms often used interchangeably. But the words have distinct (and sometimes contested) meanings. Let’s examine a few definitions.
The terms equal and equality both refer to sameness. For example, equal rights means having the same rights, such as the right to vote.. By this definition, inequality means differences and disparities among (or within) populations, such as unequal access to opportunities and resources.
But sameness is not always fair. Consider a building with access only via a flight of stairs. Imagine two people trying to get into the building: a person who can walk and a person in a wheelchair. While both have the same entry method (the stairs), the sameness creates a barrier for one person. This shows us that the well-intentioned phrase “treating people the same” can actually result in inequality.
This brings us to the meaning of equity.
Equity encompasses a “moral dimension” of fairness, i.e., equal access and opportunity. But this can look different for different people. Returning to our example, the addition of a ramp results in two different entryways, but it’s this very difference that provides equity.
Gender issues provide another example. Globally, the under-representation of women in governmental leadership positions is an example of gender inequality (a disparity between men and women). But this inequality is created by gender inequity: women’s lack of access to the education, rights, and opportunities that lead to such positions.
It’s critical that educators know the difference between the equity and equality and the implications for their use/misuse. Calls for “equal funding” for all schools mask the fact that the children within these school have different needs. This means we must pursue equitable funding to ensure that each student has access to opportunities to be successful. It’s about giving students what they need. Equity thus requires that we rectify the well-documented pattern of unequal access to advanced coursework and challenging learning for students of color and low-income students. This is just one step in addressing a host of inequities in disciplinary policies, expectations, and much more.
The United Nations Development Program sums this up nicely: “Inequalities in outcomes are largely the product of unequal access.” To meet the needs of a diverse population, we must replace the rhetoric of “sameness” with a commitment to opportunity and access. What are steps you can take to make this happen?