Equity vs Equality

Equality means equal treatment. Equity means equal experience.  At first glance, these two things might seem to be similar, but context matters. Fairness is usually the goal of any discussion of equity and equality. The debate is about how to achieve fairness, either through equity or through equality.

Here’s a real-life example to clarify the difference between the two. Imagine two different Trans-Atlantic flights. On both flights, passengers are given a complimentary toiletry bag with items that may be useful on an overnight trip.

  • Flight A chooses to be fair to passengers by providing everyone with the same bag containing the same items. This is equality. Everyone is treated the same.
  • Flight B chooses to use equity to reach an outcome of fairness. The airline provides bags containing different items depending on the passengers’ overnight hygiene needs.

Let’s look at how this plays out.

Flight A’s toiletry bag contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, earplugs, and a menstruation kit.

Flight B has two different toiletry bags. One contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, and earplugs and the other contains all of those things plus a menstruation kit.

Using equality to achieve fairness

Equality means treating everyone the same, like Flight A chose to do. Menstruation kits are provided to everyone, even the men and children. The airline could have chosen to omit the menstruation kit from the toiletry bag and their treatment of passengers would remain equal. In fact, they could have chosen not to provide toiletry bags at all and their treatment of passengers would still be equal. Equality doesn’t speak to the quality of treatment – it speaks only to the sameness across the population.

Equality isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Equality is fair treatment in a sense, but fair treatment can provide a lacking, awkward, or unpleasant experience for some of the people in the group – especially when the people in the group are very different in their needs.

Using equity to achieve fairness

Equity is focused, not on treatment, but on the experience of the people receiving the treatment. Flight B chose to provide toiletry bags based on at least one difference in the needs of passengers – whether they want a menstruation kit. The passengers didn’t receive equal treatment. Instead, the passengers were provided inequal hygiene products.

Equity allows for some nuance in the treatment of people who are different in their needs. Because of this added nuance of using equity to provide fairness, the quality of experience is often better with equitable treatment vs equal treatment.

In this example, men and children didn’t have the awkward task of figuring out what to do with their menstruation kits because they were treated differently – having been given only what they needed for the flight.

Risks of using equity to achieve fairness at work

Work cultures that value equity to achieve fairness must put effort into being attuned to the needs of their employees. Equity creates fairness and an improved quality of experience only when employees feel safe enough to take advantage of the support.

Employees must feel safe enough at work to disclose their unique needs, otherwise equity cannot provide true fairness.

Using the example above, the passengers who want a menstruation kit will have to feel safe enough to reach for the toiletry bag with the menstruation kit. In environments where unique needs are treated as weakness, equity will not play out as fairness. It will simply highlight the differences between people in a way that can feel dangerous to some members of the population.  

Moving toward equity

In environments where differences are regarded as weakness, the culture will have to change in two ways before equity can provide an increased quality of experience. First, the culture will have to accept human differences as neutral – not bad. Second, the culture will have to uncover the previously hidden differences and needs of its members so that those needs can be fulfilled.