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Equity, Equality, and Empowerment

Gender Equality

Equality at its base means equal- equal opportunities, equal chances...a level playing field. It’s an incredible thing to strive for and represents fairness and compassion. 

But it doesn’t take into account histories of oppression or structural barriers and biases that may affect an individual’s ability to access those things. And, therefore, ‘equality’ can also have a hollow ring to it when used or promoted without the due diligence behind the initiative. 

I can hear you saying but...wait! Equality is a good thing...right? 

Sure! In theory, equality is a GREAT thing! But the trouble with equality is that it doesn’t always hold space for conversations about where that equality might come from

For example: we’ve all heard the phrase ‘equal opportunity employer’. That might mean that the organisation accepts and encourages applications from all genders, races, and socio-econoic statuses. But, in practice, gender bias accounts for a serious amount of rejections based on the name on the CV alone. And that’s not even mentioning the intersection of race and class in the mix! 

Does it surprise you that, given literally the exact same CV, the name Malik Washington is considered the most likely name to get a call back while Desinty Washington is the least likely? The cited reason for not calling Destiny back? Lack of education (remember..literally the same CV). 

And, it’s not really about the reasons people give because these are socialized biases. That means they’re ingrained into our society, our families, our entertainment...EVERYTHING. So, the reasons are mostly just made up to support our biases meaning that the ‘equality’ effort ends up falling short. 

Gender Equity

Equity, on the other hand, is a conversation about the “historical and social disadvantages that that prevent women and men from otherwise operating on a level playing field.” Thinking about equity is the foundation for equality. This image is a perfect example.

The first panel shows three people all watching a sports event, all are standing on a single wooden box. The first person is tall and can easily see the event. The middle person can see the event with the single box to stand on. The third person is still too short to witness the event even standing on a box. The panel is labeled 'equality'.

The second panel shows the same three people only now, the first person is not standing on a box and can still see the sportint event. The second person stands on one box while the third person is standing on two boxes and can now see the event. This panel is labeled 'equity'.

In the first slide, everyone is given equal opportunity to witness the sportsing. However, those boxes don’t take into consideration the needs of each individual person in the first place. The first person doesn’t need a box to witness the sports. This person’s experience does not change with the box. The middle person does need a box to see while the third person needs more than one box. 

The second photo is a more equitable solution to the initial problem: everyone can now see the sportsing because they’ve been given the tools that they need individually to make it work! PLUS! The first person’s experience does not change even though they weren’t given a box! Those with inherent privilege in our society don’t necessarily need ‘extras’ to access what they’re already getting without effort. 

So let’s go back to the gendered hiring bias example.  

Without coming up with an equitable solution to the hiring bias issue, the ‘equality’ measures of saying ‘we try to hire an equal number of men and women’ falls short. Equitable solutions to hiring might be asking for unnamed CVs to deal solely with the content of the CV rather than the name of the person. It might mean having an open and transparent salary catalogue where employees can compare their salaries against those of their coworkers to combat the 15.5% gender pay gap (again, not even taking into consideration other intersecting identities). Or it might mean making flexible hours available to those individuals (usually women) who are responsible for childcare.

Ok. So...Where do we start?

A great place to start is with education. Research has shown that when education for young people is safe, gender-responsive, and inclusive, it lays the foundation for an incredible number of benefits not only for the young woman but for society in general (seriously, go to the link and just look at the research). 

A perfect example of equality versus equity is a discussion around period products. In many parts of the world (and let’s please not fall down the trap in thinking this only happens in ‘third world’ countries...there are plenty of issues on Western soil), young people who menstruate either don’t have access to or money for sanitary products or even toilets at school. This means that young girls either routinely skip or are shuttered away from education once they reach puberty. 

Is the school still open to these girls? Yup!

Would they be given an education if they showed up? Yup! 


Wait...but...can those girls access their education if they either don’t have anywhere safe and clean to change their sanitary napkins or, even worse, they don’t have access to sanitary napkins at all? 

And what about the more complex issues like the underlying shame associated with menstruation? Or the fact that puberty means that you can have children and, therefore, you’re ready for marriage? And then, if young girls can’t even access education 1 week out of every 4, then of course they’re going to be left behind in terms of future prospects. 

Equity is hard but important

So, an equitable approach to gender fairness needs to take into consideration all of the complex, underlying issues that lead to inequality in the first place. It’s hard and messy and takes a lot of time, empathy, and patience. It means seriously addressing the uncomfortable realities of our entire social system to understand the ways in which people are being held back. It requires us to make small, incremental changes both in our personal lives (let’s stop telling young girls that they’re ‘bossy’ ok?) as well as significant, societal level change. We need legislation that instills in our social conscience the end goal of equality. We need campaigns that raise awareness of inequalities that face young people and work hard to fix things at the root.

But all of this can’t start without us doing work on ourselves. Understanding our own biases, our own foundations, and our own histories to discover where we’re holding onto thoughts and beliefs that uphold gender inequality. 

Remember: Gender equality is the end, gender equity is the means. 


24 Apr 2021

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