Equality vs. Equity: "At what point is equity enabling mediocrity?"

Recently I've had this question (or some version of it) come up. Here are some thoughts that I'd like to offer on ye' olde equality vs. equity discussion.

Q: "Equality vs. equity is a hot topic. Equality says you get equal opportunities. Equity says resources are adjusted accordingly to make sure all individuals have the same outcome. At what point is equity enabling mediocrity and being content with accepting handouts? In theory, if everyone, regardless of their race, gender, etc., are all given the same exact resources and opportunities (equality), isn’t that giving everyone a level playing field?" –– Anonymous participant from a February 2021 DEI discussion

Visualizing Health Equity

Image: Visualizing Health Equity by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Image Description: A two part illustration to differentiate between equality and equity. In the first illustration, the equality illustration, four individuals of various physical statures and abilities are provided the same bike. Only one person can comfortably sit on the bike. In the second illustration, the equity illustration, the same four individuals have been provided with bikes that fit their individual physical needs.

Some thoughts I’d like to offer on this…

The bike illustration (above) is one of my favorite DEI learning tools because it’s a good example of how giving everyone the same resources/opportunities doesn’t actually “level the playing field.”

In this example, we have a team of four people, each with different physical statures and needs. We want the team to bike together, from point A to point B. In the first scenario (the top illustration), equality is promoted: we provide each team member with the same bike, which results in only one person being able to comfortably use the bike, two others struggling to make the “universal” bike work for them, and one team member being left behind because they just can’t make the bike work for them. And in the second scenario, equity is promoted: each team member is provided with a unique bike––a bike that best suits them and their physical needs.

Equality is often a one-size-fits-all approach––it assumes that everyone can and will be able to make the same resources work for them (in this example, the same bike). Equity, on the other hand, acknowledges and embraces diversity, assessing individual needs and providing resources to support those unique needs.

Now, this isn’t the same thing as giving someone a “handout.” To continue building on the bike example: with equity, everyone is still being provided with the same thing, a bike. The only difference is that the bikes are being custom fitted to the needs of the individual rider. An example of a “handout” in this scenario would be offering a team member, who has identified that they are physically capable of manually biking, a car to get to destination B, while everyone else is still expected to bike there.

One last thing I’d like to highlight/callout about this example is the person in the wheelchair, who gets completely left behind in the first scenario where they’re given the same, “universal” bike as everyone else. Because someone can’t (not that they won’t, but can’t) make something work for them, should they be penalized? Should we leave them behind? Especially if we have the means to provide them with an individualized bike that works for them? Again, the idea isn’t to accept mediocrity, but to acknowledge that people have different starting points and to try to fill the gaps that exist for individuals, whenever possible.

The reality of our world is that not everyone is given the same starting point. We’re all born into circumstances that put us at unique disadvantages and/or advantages, which we have no control over––at least not initially, during adolescence. And we certainly don’t all come to the workplace with the same resources or opportunities or experiences, and that has to be acknowledged and embraced.

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