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  • Dr Francesca Maclean

EQUITY IS NOT EQUALITY

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

“I don’t want to be treated differently, I just want to be treated equally.”


Years ago, I was defending myself to a male lecturer who was criticising a women’s ‘thing’ at university. I don’t even remember what it was about, but in that moment my survival instincts told me I needed to adopt the ‘cool girl’ persona otherwise I knew the critique I was witnessing would be redirected to me personally, as the only woman around.


When I said that, I was yet to understand the true differences in my experience compared to those of the men around me, and what impact those differences had – and would continue to have – on my experience, wellbeing, and future opportunities.


I didn’t need to just be treated equally. As a young woman in engineering, I needed true equity.


But what is the difference, aren’t they just the same thing?


Simply: no, they are not.


Equality is the state of being equal. Equity is about the quality of being fair.


As Fakequity states, sometimes we need things to be equal, for example, equal speaking time for people in meetings. However, not everyone needs the same thing, because not everyone faces the same cultural and systemic biases.


Sometimes, things don’t need to be equal, sometimes they need to be equitable.


For example, we can’t just provide maths classes to all boys and girls and expect equal uptake in STEM career pathways, because we know girls face many barriers in addition to access to education (gendered socialization, roles, and segregation, sexist depiction in social media and pop culture… and so on). While these barriers continue to exist, we need to focus on achieving equity for gender in STEM.


There are many diagrams that depict this concept, including the thoughtful one below from Cultural Organizing.

Figure 1 - A series of three images. 'Equality', the first image depicts three people trying to watch a baseball game, with a fence that gets progressively higher from left to right. The first person is standing on one box and can see over the fence. The second person is standing on top of one box, however the ground is lower than the first person, so they can only just see over the fence when on their tip-toes. The third person is standing on a box which is on even lower ground, so they cannot see over the fence which is also higher than for the first two people. Instead they have a peep hole to watch the game. 'Equity', the second image, depicts the same three people watching a baseball game, however the second person has two boxes, and the third person has three boxes, so they can all watch the game easily. 'Justice', the third diagram, shows the three people destroying the fence.

Note the ground level and fence height represent systemic barriers, whilst the boxes represent efforts to addresss these barriers. There is a peek-hole in the fence in the left image, which depicts the creative and subversive ways people work around systems to try and achieve despite the barriers. The original equity / equality diagram of different people trying to watch a baseball game over a fence and subsequent modifications have made the rounds on the internet, I particularly love the one that shows the removal of barriers all together - liberation. Interestingly, the premise behind the baseball diagram has been criticised as it assumes the difficulties faced by people are inherent (i.e. height is biological). There is a thoughtful exploration of this positioning in this Fakequity post.


Alternatively, there is the illustration by Matt Kinshella that depicts equality and equity of resources between communities:


Figure 2 - A series of two images. ‘Equality’, the first image, depicts one group of residential buildings, and another group of institutional buildings, with two equally sized pipes delivering community resources to the buildings. ‘Equity’, the second images, depicts one group of residential buildings, and another group of institutional buildings, with four different pipes delivering community resources to the residential buildings, while there is only one pipe to the institutions.

Correctly understanding and introducing the concept of equity into our conversations and approaches will help us understand and better address the complex problem that is gender inequity in STEM.

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