Equality vs Equity: Is there a difference? - Sian Mantovani
By Sian Mantovani, Sociology Lecturer at York College and Research Further scholar
Equality and equity - both concepts we are probably familiar with, and possibly make reference to fairly regularly as part of discussions on EDI. To many of us, the concepts look and even sound alike. Yet, perhaps we need to afford more consideration to the complexities and distinctions between them? This is significant not just on a conceptual level in terms of their relevance to policy and strategy.
I take some comfort in the realisation that I am not the only one who may have failed to fully appreciate the need to break down what we really mean by equality and equity. According to Espinosa (2007) “most of the definitions of ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ are frequently used by many researchers, evaluators, policy-makers, policy analysts, scholars and educators as if they were interchangeable.”
But the concepts are not actually the same. Along with David T Takeuchi et al (Summer 2018), Espinosa (2007) examines a range of definitions of the two concepts. He contends that, whilst there certainly are no clear, universally shared definitions of either equality or equity, there is a broad consensus that the ideas are separate and should not be conflated.
Of the two terms, equality is probably the most commonly used, especially in regard to EDI strategies and policies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website defines equality as: “Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.”
Broadly speaking, equality can therefore mean ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities and receives the same treatment and support. According to Leofler in the British Medical Journal equality denotes evenness and lack of difference. This could be encapsulated in the idea that equal access to education exists for all under 18s in the UK and this equal right is protected in law. To some extent, the concept of equality is “elevated to the level of principle” Leoffler (2006) i.e. a goal to which we should aspire in all aspects of life. Arguably, we could see the Equalities Act of 2010 as an attempt to manifest this ideal in law. Amongst many other aims, the 2010 Act sought to reduce socio- economic inequalities by tackling issues of discrimination and offering legal protection to certain specified characteristics such as age and beliefs.
However, as Von der Pfordten (2010) in Frones et al (2020) points out, even this normative ideal of equality between persons is fraught with practical problems for implementation. For example, when we talk about pursuing equality, do we mean equal treatment, say, in allocation of resources? Or do we mean creating equality in society in a more ideological regard, such as how we perceive each other in relation to ourselves and society as a whole? To put this in simple terms: we might consider all students have equal access to education because as we don’t place obvious barriers to entry in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, people with disabilities. This theoretically constitutes equal right to access for all.
However, as Cohen contends “possessing rights is not sufficient. It is equally important to ask if a person has the opportunity to exercise these rights”. What about those students who may not be able to exercise their right to equality of access because they lack the resources to attend, for example because they can’t afford the bus fair to college?
So, we may see equality as a principle, an ideal which we can take steps to encourage and implement. However, we need to accept that EDI strategies are just about declarations of intent. We must address the very real barriers to the implementation of equality of opportunity which (for critical theorists) are largely, but certainly not exclusively, material. As John Rawls argues, there is a crucial difference between having the right to education and equal treatment therein - but being able to make use of that right is a whole other matter (in Frones et al 2011).
This leads into our exploration of the concept of equity. In a blog piece for Social Change. Org (6 January 2023) the writer defines equity as “about giving people what they need, in order to make things fair”. There exists, however, a tension between the two concepts, as enhancing equity may not necessarily enhance equality. Equity focuses on the fair distribution of resources, what Espinosa refers to as “distributive justice”. The difficulty with this form of justice is that “if we wish to produce equal results, it is highly likely that we will need to generate an unequal distribution of resources” (Espinosa 2007). In this model, equity can appear at odds with the concept of equality. Equality broadly means sameness in treatment and yet, equity can run counter to that sameness. For example, a policy which focused on equity would posit that disadvantaged pupils may need more resources or opportunities, proportionate to their own circumstances. That could be a reduction in entry requirements for some disadvantaged, less represented students compared to the “standard” entry requirements. Hence, sameness in treatment (upon which equality of opportunity is largely based) is not always just. If we want a “fair” society or a fair education system we need to take into account that “not all students are alike” (Ophiem 2004). As this is the case, it could be argued that policies which pursue equity by distributing resources more fairly may ultimately achieve the equality strategies aspire to.
The supposed inevitability and even “benefits” of inequality have been debated by the political left and right for considerable time. In a world where the richest 1 per cent get ever richer, and the foodbank queues ever longer, normalising deprivation as simply one of the costs of maintaining a so-called meritocracy may be increasingly challenging for those of us working in the education sector. After all, most of us are driven by a desire to “make things better”.
I realise that advocating equity as the E in EDI policies is not only controversial but will have its disadvantages. There will be inevitable accusations of unfair treatment if some individual and groups are shortlisted for jobs in the name of equity or afforded more funding in the pursuit of a more level playing field. Others may not want to address their hidden or unconscious bias. As Leach found in her study into teacher’ responses to diversity, there are many educators who “feel” that they treat all students equally and so there is no “problem” to address. This may lead to accusations that strategies which strive to tackle inequity result in inequality of treatment. This must be acknowledged and addressed.
However, failing to account for the needs of groups or individuals so they can compete in a fair way, could be said to undermine the very idea of equality. It is a fine and tricky line to navigate but it might start by really thinking about what these two words, equality and equity, really mean and being clear which we are pursuing.
Oscar Espinoza. Solving the equity–equality conceptual dilemma: a new model for analysis of the educational process, Educational Research, 2007. 49:4, 343-363, DOI: 10.1080/00131880701717198
Tove Stjern Frønes et al. Equity, Equality and Diversity in the Nordic Model of Education. 2020 Springer
Equality and Human Rights Commission Website. Understanding Equality. www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/secondary-education-resources/useful-information/understanding-equality
Social Change.Org. Website.
Linda Leach ‘I treat all students as equal’: further and higher education teachers' responses to diversity, Journal of Further and Higher Education.2011 35:2, 247-263, DOI: 0.1080/0309877X.2010.548858
David T. Takeuchi et al. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging , Vol. 42, No. 2, Land of the Unequal? Economic, Social Inequality in an Aging America (Summer 2018), pp. 13-19 Published by: American Society on Aging
Leofler. Let’s be Fair about equity and equality in the British Medical Journal (Mar 5 332. 2006)
The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.