Equity vs. Equality: What's the Difference?

Some people may use the two terms interchangeably, but they have distinct differences.

Equity and equality. You may have heard of both terms. Additionally, you may know they have something to do with fairness. 

Your school or workplace might have discussed "diversity, equity, and inclusion." You might have even heard about the concept of health equity.

But what exactly do those terms mean, and how are they different? Here's what you should know about equity and equality and how to achieve them.

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What's the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

Here's a basic overview of both equity and equality. Alford Young, PhD, professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, told Health that he defines the terms in the following ways:

Equality

The access to and distribution of a set of resources evenly across individuals.

Equity

The access to or distribution of resources according to need.

For a visual representation of how equity differs from equality, check out the cartoon below:

IISC_EqualityEquity
Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

In the equality drawing, each person is given the same box. So, the access to and distribution of resources is spread evenly across the population. 

But in that scenario, the shortest person still can't see over the fence. And the tallest person has been boosted even higher over the fence he already could see over. 

On the other hand, in the equity drawing, the people are given either one, two, or no boxes to stand on. Therefore, the access to or distribution of resources is spread according to need. 

By providing equity, all three people can see over the fence at the same level, regardless of their height.

Young said that equality and equity should be considered separate. While both concepts have to do with fairness and justice, how society achieves them and what they ultimately look like are different. 

"People often use the terms interchangeably, and they shouldn't be," stated Young.

Why the Initial Focus Is on Equity

Equality assumes that everybody is the same and everybody needs the same thing. But some people need more because they started with less, according to the United Nations.

If everyone gets an equal shot or piece of something—for example, a company issuing every employee a computer to work at home—some people still don't have what they need—like reliable Wi-Fi to use the device. 

And in those cases, they aren't able to thrive, Regina Davis Moss, PhD, MPH, the American Public Health Association's associate executive director, told Health. Because equality still leaves room for different outcomes, the goal should be equity, said Davis Moss.

"I think what's driving the focus on equity is this now long-standing realization that there are such differences in certain social outcomes that require different means of address or that the different populations need different things," added Young. 

In the above example, an equitable approach would be figuring out the employees who need Wi-Fi access and giving them the computer and a way to access Wi-Fi. In that scenario, all employees have the necessary resources to do their work.

Without first achieving equity, you can't achieve equality, noted Young. "Equity becomes a way of focusing on the fact that we're not going to have equality any time soon by just throwing a set of resources to a bunch of people at the same level­. That's not going to do much," explained Young.

So is "equality" an outdated term? No, answered Davis Moss. Equality works—if everyone needs the same thing. 

"In some places, yes, absolutely, you should be trying to think about [equality]," explained Davis Moss. "But when we're talking about really trying to help people have better lives and rectify [unfairness], then that's just not going to be enough if you give everyone the same thing."

What Does Equity Look Like in the Real World?

According to Davis Moss, equity is both an ultimate goal and a process. In terms of the ultimate goal, achieving equity means that no part of a person's identity gets in the way of their ability to thrive, said Davis Moss. Per the Equality and Human Rights Commission, those identities include:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Marriage or civil union
  • Pregnancy 
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

In terms of the process, being equitable means recognizing, taking accountability for, and changing the systemic and structural barriers that get in the way of people being able to thrive. And the people affected by inequality should be meaningfully involved in the change process, said Davis Moss.

Some might think that those targeted efforts in and of themselves are racist and discriminatory, pointed out Young. But that's not the case.

"If a sect of people [has] suffered neglect or abuse, lack of access, the only way to correct that is by special intervention," explained Young.

The Focus on Health Equity

The call for more significant equity spans everything from education to work to politics. But the systemic and structural barriers that prevent people from thriving in each of these spheres can, in turn, prevent people [from] being the healthiest they can be, according to Davis Moss.

For example, inequity in education might have prevented you from going to college. That might make it hard for you to find a job that offers health insurance or even a good-paying job.

"If you live in a low-income neighborhood because that's all that you can afford, you may live in an area with poor housing that has an impact on your health—whether that be lead exposure, whether that be densely populated and you're on top of each other. And you saw that happening with [the COVID-19 pandemic], that people were exposed," explained Davis Moss.

The COVID-19 pandemic has especially highlighted the need for health equity. Minority and low-income communities were hit the hardest.

Talking about the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020, Young said the first 14 months "have been one of the most salient moments to recognize how different people need some very different things even though they share being affected by the same health crisis."

But COVID-19 is just one condition that disproportionately affects specific populations. For instance, the LGBTQ+ community has higher rates of mental health conditions than other communities.

Asian and Pacific Islander women are more likely to have stomach cancer. And Black Americans have higher rates of diabetes than others, pointed out Davis Moss.

Health equity challenges us to understand those disparities, said Davis Moss. There may not be enough healthful food or not as much access to care in a particular neighborhood. It could be harder to find transportation or take off from work to see a healthcare provider. Those factors can make managing chronic diseases more difficult for some people.

What Populations Would Benefit From Equity?

Of course, equitable practices would help the specific groups and people that they're targeting. But having more equity will benefit society as a whole—even if you aren't the direct target of those equitable practices. That's especially true when it comes to health equity.

"When we're unhealthy, it has an impact on the goods that we produce. It has an effect on how competitive we are as a nation. It has an impact on who's going to be in our workforce, who's going to be taking care of us as we age," said Davis Moss. "So, we can't afford to have some population sicker than others."

Our dependence on technology—instead of face-to-face interaction—also makes us forget or not realize "how interconnected we are and how much we need other people's well-being for us to have well-being," according to Young.

"There's a lot of learning that people need to undergo to understand how the life situation of others affects you," added Young.

How Will We Know When We've Achieved Equity?

Education, politics, and entertainment are some of the areas where society has made notable equitable progress, said Young.

Yes, there is still work to be done, "but that doesn't dismiss the critical changes that have happened over time," said Young. Instead of criticizing what is not "wholly perfect," recognize that change has happened and build upon it, suggested Young.

According to Davis Moss, economics is one area where equity is needed, especially regarding health. 

"The need for someone to earn a living wage is going to have a tremendous impact on health," explained Davis Moss. 

To help make health itself more equitable, the Department of Health and Human Services identified several Healthy People 2030 objectives that it will target over the next decade, including these three:

  • Increase the number of national surveys that collect data on LGBTQ+ populations.
  • Reduce the proportion of adults with disabilities who delay preventive care because of cost.
  • Increase the proportion of people whose water supply is safe to drink.

So regardless of whether it's health equity or any other type of equity, how will we know when equity has been reached? 

"When people who are affected by the same conditions and circumstances generally have the same outcome," answered Young. "At its core, if the same kind of thing happens to you as happens to someone else, you have an equal opportunity to endure, survive it, manage it, challenge it as do other people."

What You Can Do To Help Bridge the Equity Gap

Equity is dictated by policy at every level, said Davis Moss. So, it isn't just federal policy but also state policy and policies in organizations, such as when picking board members. 

"If your board is not representative [of] everyone, there's not a voice at the table to make sure that those views are heard," explained Davis Moss. 

But there are still things you can do to help promote equity, even on a more personal level.

"Think in modest and some basic ways," noted Young. "I think too often the commitment to change comes about by people trying to figure out, 'How do I change an entire community or an entire environment?'" 

For example, take stock of one of the following five areas:

  • Live
  • Work
  • Worship
  • Spend your free time
  • Go to school

"Think about who's unfairly disadvantaged or who's suffering in those domains and what service might you bring to those people," said Young. Once you've identified these people, according to Young, the following questions:

  • Can you partner with them and be a friend? Can you be an ally to help them feel better included, to make them better aware of opportunities and resources?
  • Do you have the material capacity to create change in those spaces by funding programs and initiatives? Do you have support services that make things go better for people?
  • Can you, because of your status, become a leader in those domains that initiates change?

Any degree of help toward equity matters, according to Young. Whether you only have the means to be a friend, confidant, or supporter, or you have the economic or material means to contribute to change more substantially, anything helps.

"We can never have too much awareness-raising. Because we assume what we know, everyone else already understands. But they don't," said Davis Moss. "So, it starts with that conversation. But it also continues with meaningfully talking to the people that are impacted by [inequities] because ultimately they're the own experts of their experience."

A Quick Review

Equality and equity are essential concepts in terms of fairness and justice. But they mean two different things.

Equality is the access to and distribution of a set of resources evenly across individuals. But equity helps even the playing field so that everyone can thrive. Equity is the access to or allocation of resources according to need.

You can help inspire equity in your local community, even if that simply means being a friend or ally to someone who experiences disadvantages in your community. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. United Nations. Recognizing and overcoming inequity in education.

  2. Equality and Human Rights Commission. Protected characteristics.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is health equity?.

  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. LGBTQ+ behavioral health equity center of excellence.

  5. Office of Minority Health. Cancer and Asian Americans.

  6. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Browse objectives.

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