The Equality and Human Rights Commission describe equality as:
“Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.”
In other words, equality means ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities and receives the same treatment and support.
Equity is about giving people what they need, in order to make things fair.
Giving more to those who need it.
This is not the same as equality, nor is it the same as inequality. It is simply giving more to those who need it, which is proportionate to their own circumstances, in order to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities; for example providing more support to a disadvantaged student so they can reach their full potential.
The difference between equality and equity must be emphasised. Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. However, this different treatment may be the key to reaching equality.
Referring back to the student example, fairness through equality would mean giving all students the same level of support. However, those who need more support beyond this initial level to succeed would therefore not have equal opportunities to those who do not.
By ‘unequal’ I do not mean providing someone with less but simply providing more to those who need it.
Alternatively, fairness through equity means giving students varying, perhaps unequal, but proportionate levels of support. This would then mean that those who need and receive the extra support would go onto have the same, equal opportunities as those who did not.
So, I therefore ask the following question – can unequal but proportionate support and treatment encourage equality?
Before the controversial nature of this question takes hold, I’d just like to clarify that by ‘unequal’, I do not mean providing someone with less but simply providing more to those who need it. Equality means giving everyone the same opportunities, but how can everyone have the same opportunities if some are receiving less support than they need in the name of equality? It is for this reason that I suggest equity plays a key role in ensuring equality, and the examples are not limited to students.
Gender equity refers to treating men and women fairly based on their respective needs. Although this may mean that treatment will be different, it will also be fair. This has an important role in achieving gender equality, because the inequalities that exist means that we have to give more to ensure that all genders have equal opportunities. For example,in 2017 only 11% of the engineering workforce was female, which therefore suggests that women may need more support and encouragement to enter this workforce, and more action may need to be taken to make it as accessible to women as it is to men. In other words, give different treatment for equal opportunity.
Equity does not undermine equality, but rather provides the means to achieve this. Equality is undermined when equity is used incorrectly; it is undermined when a person or group’s needs are not taken into account, i.e. giving less to those who need it and more to those who do not. For example, giving women in the engineering workforce less support based on low numbers rather than high need. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between equity and inequality, which we must be careful not to cross.
Equality and equity may be inherently different but are also bound together. In order to create true equality of opportunity, equity is needed to ensure that everyone has the same chance of getting there. However, we must act cautiously when dealing with equity; providing too little to those who need it and too much to those who do not can further exacerbate the inequalities we see today.