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The use of the term Equity has been on the rise for years, especially with the emergence of the new political term of "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion", or DEI, being bandied about in the US. But, in terms of usage, there doesn't seem to be much consensus on what the word actually means.

InclusionHub

Is often used interchangeably with equality, but there’s a core difference: Where equality is a system in which each individual is offered the same opportunities regardless of circumstance, equity distributes resources based on needs. We live in a disproportionate society, and equity tries to correct its imbalance by creating more opportunities for people who have historically had less access.

That sounds a great deal more like a synonym for affirmative action.

Bill Maher asked Bernie Sanders (someone who openly espouses DEI) and his answer was muddled (transcript mine)

MAHER: How would you differentiate between Equity and Equality?
SANDERS: Well, Equality we talk about -- Uh -- I don't know what the answer to that is. Come to think of it, Equality is Equality of opportunity.
(snipped in clip)
MAHER: Equity is more guarantee of outcome, is it not?
SANDERS: Yeah, I think so.
MAHER: So which side do you come down on?
SANDERS: Equality

Maher would later ask the same thing of John McWhorter (not a DEI fan). The crux of his answer is this (transcript mine)

Equity is this wormy word. The idea is that you're gonna have Equality by forcing the issue by bringing people into positions that they're not qualified for yet so that everything looks "like America". So it sounds like "Equality" and you say "Equity" and you figure it means the same thing. But it's a euphemism. They're trying to slip in without letting you know that it's going to be equality accomplished in a way that you probably wouldn't like.

The problem (as everyone notes) is that it is often used interchangeably with "equality". Is this simply a synonym for "equality-plus-something"? A pure synonym? Does it have any other use that would explain what its proponents mean?

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    Related: "Equity theory", Wikipedia.
    – Nat
    Apr 7, 2023 at 14:03
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    It's probably best to not assume that everyone using the word means the same thing (or even knows what the word actually means). When some uses "equity" it may be best to ask clarifying questions to nail down what they specifically mean. I commonly ask something like "do you mean equal outcomes or equal starting point or opportunity or something else?"
    – Azendale
    Apr 8, 2023 at 15:24

4 Answers 4

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There's an excellent write up on equity vs equality on this international women's day page.

The clearest picture example included is this one for giving everyone bicycles. In the second picture the cost of each bicycle will vary, but giving each person the same (equality) is wasteful.

Equality vs Equity

Most of the provided examples of equality vs equity are quite contrived and not immediately helpful from a policy perspective. The goal of equity is to help everyone achieve their potential not to handicap those who start ahead, or to limit those who start behind in the name of equality.

Equity can be defined as giving everyone what they need to be successful. In other words, it's not giving everyone the exact same thing. If we give everyone the exact same thing, expecting that will make people equal, it assumes that everyone started out in the same place - and this can be vastly inaccurate because everyone isn't the same.

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“Equality” means treating people the same.

“Equity” means treating people “fairly”. The complication here is that “fairness” is a subjective thing, which is why, as you note, “there doesn't seem to be much consensus on what the word actually means.” But it's usually used by people on the left side of the political spectrum, who believe that historically oppressed minorities need extra help (or in others' perspective, “special treatment”) to compensate for a worse starting point.

As a simplified example: Giving one cupcake to each of your children is “equality”. Giving two cupcakes to the one who's hungrier is “equity”.

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    Equity also seems to have some more meanings like "participation" for example. Is there maybe a link to what the people with these slogans mean by it? Apr 6, 2023 at 20:58
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    For a more concrete example, a refund of private school tuition (an idea being pushed in many USA red states these days) might be available equally, but its not equitable because its realistically only usable by people with the financial resources to scrape together the tuition up-front and a worthwhile such school nearby.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 7, 2023 at 14:02
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    Your example with cupcakes would be improved by avoiding the subjective state of being hungry and using an objective restriction. Some examples include a child with diabetes getting a sugar-free cupcake, or a child with a chocolate allergy a vanilla cupcake.
    – zzzzBov
    Apr 7, 2023 at 22:25
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In a very simplified manner:

Equality is to provide the same starting conditions.

Equity is to provide the same ending conditions.

Equality is a much simpler concept. It making everything the same across the board. All of the subjects have the same evaluation weight and none of them are individually considered. If you are distributing something equally, all of the separate parcels will be identical.

Equity introduces qualifiers or modifiers. It makes a comparison of the subjects it is evaluating. These comparisons adjust how the distribution is made. Not all of the individual parcels remain identical. They are adjusted based on the comparisons made, whatever the comparison is. Equity, if applied correctly, will result in a disparity of initial conditions among subjects that will be as close to identical to each other as possible in the outcome.

It is, in part, due to these comparisons that Equity has a more nebulous definition. Equity applied in one sense will not necessarily have the same comparisons of equity applied elsewhere. The common broad differences in equity is if it is applied towards current disparities or historical disparities.

A great example of the difference between equity and equality is divorce proceedings. In some states, the divorce will provide an equal distribution of assets. That is, each side gets half of the total between the two. 50/50.

In other states, the divorce will provide an equitable distribution of assets. This will consider the contributions of each partner in assets, earnings, and non-monetary contributions. That is, it will sometimes result in a 50/50, 60/40, 90/10. All depending on the goal, which is commonly to provide both sides with an equal standard of living after the divorce, or to ensure that a child is adequately cared for.

This brings another confusing factor about equity. In some cases, equity is also an asynchronous or alternative equality. Apples and oranges. Equity, in a sense, establishes the exchange rate of unequal things. In a divorce of a breadwinner vs a homemaker, it is often difficult to put a monetary value many contributions from a homemaker. Another example would be monetary restitution for legal cases. We have long strayed away from equal carriage of justice, eye for an eye. Equity is the result of attempting to equalize things that cannot be equal.

In some senses, equality and equity are synonymous. That is, both are an effort to provide fairness. Also, it is possible for an equitable distribution to be equal, which, in those very specific circumstances, can be used interchangeably. However, in most circumstances, using them interchangeably is misleading or inaccurate.

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    Equality is not, actually, providing the same starting conditions. You cannot provide the starting conditions: people come as they are. Equality is more ignoring the starting conditions, and just giving everyone the same assistance/gifts/etc... regardless. Apr 7, 2023 at 11:19
  • @MatthieuM. Equality is more ignoring starting conditions. It doesn't factor into it any examination or consideration for the starting conditions. Essentially, equality looks at the count of the subjects where equity will evaluate properties of the subjects. As to using marriage as an example, its because there is a lot cases to compare equality vs equity and how its been defined by the US government. In my opinion, that provides some of the strongest support for how equity is practiced. I admit I can probably clarify the example or make it better.
    – David S
    Apr 7, 2023 at 14:22
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according to GWU

Equality means treating people the same.

That means giving people the same resources and/or opportunities.

Equity means ensuring that people have the same outcomes.

applying Equality and Equity to a classroom.

Equality:

You give Sue/Doug the same access to learning materials, and the same test. Sue spent a lot of time studying and gets an A. Doug spent a lot of time playing video games and so was not ready for the test and fails. This is Equality, same opportunity was given, but different outcomes because of how Sue and Doug acted.

Equity

Because Sue spent a lot of time preparing for the exam, it has given her an unfair advantage to Doug who spent his time playing video games... Thefore to make the test fair Doug is given a cheat sheet and an extra hour to take the test so that he can excel like Sue. Ensuring that Sue/Doug have the same outcome.

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    Your answer is correct in the sense that it explains how a nice concept is abused in reality. Same like the swastika and the rainbow. The question was about the "original" meaning, I guess :)
    – virolino
    Apr 7, 2023 at 8:55
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    {waggles hand} The Equity situation, ideally, would be providing more aid in preparation to Doug, who has a learning disability or has more trouble studying at home due to living in a lower income neighborhood where there are frequent power outages. But fair cop that the latter can sometimes be applied in a naive implementation. Apr 7, 2023 at 14:36
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    Does equity really go so far as to by definition result in equal outcomes? I interpret it as providing the opportunity for equal outcomes. In the limit of this example, Doug refuses to take the test because he doesn't feel like it, and is given the same score as Susan anyway - I don't think most would find that to be a good example of equity. Apr 7, 2023 at 15:27
  • @NuclearHoagie Yes, we all need to be born with silver spoons. Pity.
    – paulj
    Apr 24, 2023 at 11:00

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