Equality vs. Equity

Pencil and watercolor illustration of an Indian man stepping off a city bus with a bag of groceries
Credit: Aaron Gustafson × DALL·E

Over the last few years, I’ve been quietly leading training efforts within Microsoft focused on leveling up folks’ allyship skills. There are a ton of really important lessons to be learned form the curriculum my team and I developed, but one folks ofter struggle with is the concept of “equality” as compared to “equity.”

I’ve found Kim Crayton’s approach of starting with definitions to be very helpful, so I’ll take a page from her and start there:

Equality
Providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all people.
Equity
Providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities.

Prior to working on diversity and inclusion efforts, I often framed these two states in the context of user experience. In that context, “equality” requires that we design our services such that everyone is given the same opportunity regardless of their situation. That may sound great, but the concept of equality makes a lot of assumptions about individuals and their circumstances. I’ll circle back to that in a moment.

“Equity,” on the other hand, recognizes that we are all different and our situations are different and seeks to create services that can adapt to meet each person’s individual needs. Though I didn’t make the connection until much later, the philosophy of progressive enhancement in web design, which I’ve been advocating for nearly two decades now, is very much the embodiment of equity. It’s concerned with building interfaces that adapt to a wide range of circumstances, both tied to an individual user’s capabilities as well as those of the devices, networks, and environment in which they are accessing our creations.

I’ve seen dozens of attempts to explain the difference between equality and equity, but most seem to miss the mark in one way or another and haven’t quite sat right with me. There are a few analogies I like, however, and I want to share one with you. It also comes from Kim Crayton and I first heard share it in her “Profit Without Oppression“ talk at the Apollo GraphQL conference.

I’m paraphrasing, but the gist is this: Your job is to distribute $200 to people in need to enable them to purchase healthy food. Consider two different customers; as it’s my paraphrase, I’ll call them Sally and Dave. Equality requires you to treat Sally and Dave the same, so you give them each $100. As I mentioned, while seemingly fair, this approach makes a lot of assumptions. For example: What if Sally lives close to a grocery store and Dave does not. Sally could walk to get her groceries on her lunch break, but Dave has to drive or take public transit, which is an additional expense. If it’s a particularly long way Dave may also be penalized through lost wages as he reallocates that time to getting to and from the grocery store. The problem is that the “equality” approach assumes Sally and Dave are interchangeable. If, however, you were to approach this situation with a focus on equity, you would take into account the differing capabilities of and circumstances surrounding each user and do your best to account for that in how you distribute the funds, perhaps giving Sally $85 and Dave $115 such that both end up with the same amount of money to spend on healthy groceries.

People are complex, as are our circumstances. Nothing is cut and dry and we need to build systems that are able to adapt to provide the right level of support in the right circumstances. That’s what equity is about and why it’s so powerful. It’s also why I’ve found so much alignment between it and my long-time passion for accessibility and progressive enhancement. Equity benefits everyone.


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