Kids from an early age are taught about fairness. They are taught to share and that everyone should get an equal turn in activities. This is most likely why, as adults we are so obsessed with equality and making sure that we give everyone a “fair share”. We promote equal rights for everyone and state that all people are created equal. But is that really true? Should our efforts go toward equality or equity? And what is the difference?
What is Equality?
The goal of equality is to make sure that everyone has the same things to be successful. It is similar to equity in that it is seeking fairness for everyone, but it assumes that everyone starts equally as well. There is an illustration below, that has been done several times by others, by Angus Maquire, of three people standing behind a fence at a baseball game. The first panel shows three people of different heights standing on boxes. This represents equality since all have boxes at the same height. But, as you can see, it doesn’t promote fairness the way we would like, since it still doesn’t allow everyone to watch the game. That is where equity comes in.
What is Equity?
Equity is trying to understand where people are coming from and give them what they need to be successful. This means not necessarily giving everyone the exact same thing, but rather just what they need to live happily. As seen in the illustration, the taller person, who can already watch the game, doesn’t have a box, while the shortest person, who could not see the game with only one box, now has two. The shortest person can enjoy the game like everyone else. This mentality is harder to grasp since initially it seems unfair. Since we are always working toward equality and making sure everyone gets the same thing, we have a harder time seeing fairness in equity and giving people unequal amounts to help everyone succeed.
Barry Hessinius, an author and former executive director of the California Arts Council, said recently in an article that, “Very likely there will never be absolute equity. As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality. And equity doesn’t necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just. That doesn’t mean that progress doesn’t need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity. And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time. We have to do better than we have.”
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Differences and Why They Are Important
Another way to look at it is the analogy of runners on a track. The fair thing to do would be to have everyone start on the same starting line. But when the gun fires and the runners take off, we would quickly see how that isn’t exactly true. Those in the inside lanes have shorter distances to run and those in the outside lanes have farther to go. That means that starting on the same starting line, while it may look fair at that beginning, doesn’t set up those on the outside for success and makes it a lot easier for those on the inside track. That is why tracks will stagger start lines so that each runner will end up running the same distance to finish the race. At the start, it looks unfair, but it evens out during the race.
These are very simple analogies for this complex situation. Since it isn’t just about adding another box or staggering a starting line to promote fairness. We often speak about equality and people being created equal, but that isn’t completely true. People are born into different economic classes, have different personalities, talents and interests as well as different races, cultures and backgrounds. All of these things play a role into the success of each person.
In a recent article on Odyssey we get a glimpse of how equality and equity are played out in a classroom.
“If Jimmy gets thirty minutes of recess, every other child gets thirty minutes of recess (barring any disciplinary action restricting recess time). Okay, that’s equal and fair. Now imagine a classroom of students with a writing test prompt in front of them. The instructions are printed on the first page of the exam, but while the majority of the class reads them, one student has a pair of headphones to listen to the instruction. This upsets one of the students, claiming it is unfair that the other student gets to listen while he has to read.”
This is where the issue comes in. Equality is about treating everyone the same whether or not it will help them succeed. Equity, on the other hand, is giving people the things they need to do well. Would the student that got upset do better on the exam if they could listen to, instead of reading, the instructions? Or are they just upset because someone else is doing something different and it seems unfair.
Everyone should have the chance to be successful and live a fulfilling life. We want to be treated equally and have the same opportunities for everyone. Unfortunately we don’t all start off in the same situations and have different lifestyles, backgrounds, wants and needs. And if each person was given the same things, no one would really benefit. Instead of focusing on the method and making that fair, we need to focus on results and increasing equity for everyone.
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