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#2 Fairness 101: Equality, Equity, and Justice Explained- Why they matter and how to make a difference.

The debate between equity and equality remains a hot topic in education and healthcare. The terms are used interchangeably and often incorrectly.


You may be wondering, “Why should I care about terminology?” Here’s why: these buzzwords may sound like jargon from a policy debate, but they impact our daily lives. Understanding them can help you recognize why certain policies are important and how they can make a difference in your community. This includes advocating for fair healthcare, promoting job opportunities free from discrimination, and understanding the implications of increasingly controversial “diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)” programs for you, your patients, employees, or students.


So, if you want to become more familiar with the terminology or the rationale behind the debate, this 5-minute read and video may help.


Equality: One Size Fits All


Equality refers to the principle of treating everyone the same, by providing them with identical resources, opportunities, or treatment. It sounds fair, right? But here’s the catch: not every person starts from the same place.


Take Tom and Aurora, for example. Tom comes from a well-funded high school with advanced placement courses and tutoring, while Aurora attended an under-resourced school with few academic opportunities. She is a first-generation college student who works part-time to help her family. Under a system of equality, both Tom and Aurora would receive the same level of support in college, disregarding their vastly different backgrounds.


Equality gives everyone the same thing, without accounting for these differences.


At a library, a girl has climbed a ladder to grab a book, while a boy in crutches sadly watches, realizing he won't be able to access it.
Image created by the author, using Microsoft Designer


Arguments for Equality:


  • Simplicity and Uniformity: Avoids the complexities of individualized support systems.

  • Fairness: Promotes a sense of fairness by providing everyone with identical opportunities.

  • Prevention of Bias: Uniform treatment prevents biases from subjective resource and opportunity distribution.


Arguments against Equality:


  • Ignores Diversity: Fails to address the unique needs of diverse individuals.

  • Perpetuates Inequality: Providing the same resources to everyone can inadvertently perpetuate existing inequalities.

“Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.” ―Kimberlé Crenshaw

Equity: Tailored support for fairness


Equity is about fairness. It is about ensuring everyone has what they need to succeed but recognizing that different people have different needs and that the distribution of resources and opportunities needs to be customized for everyone to reach equal outcomes.


This tailored approach aims to level the playing field, by addressing the unique challenges and barriers different students or patients face.


If Tom and Aurora were treated with equity, Aurora might receive additional academic and financial support and resources to help bridge the gap caused by her less privileged background.


An adult realizes that a girl in crutches will not be able to access the books she needs, so she gets them for her
Image created by the author, using Microsoft Designer

“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” ―Rick Riordan

Arguments for Equity:


  • Addressing Disparities: Acknowledges that students and patients come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances and provides support based on individual needs.

  • Promoting True Fairness: Ensures that all individuals have a fair chance to succeed, not only those who start from a more privileged position.

  • Long-term Benefits: Tailored support can help close achievement gaps and promote social mobility, leading to more equitable outcomes in the long run.


Arguments against Equity:


  • Complexity: A tailored approach to resource distribution is difficult to implement effectively.

  • Perception of Favoritism: Excessive focus on individual needs may undermine equal treatment, creating community divisions and resentment from those feeling that certain groups receive preferential treatment. This sometimes leads to discrimination against those needing additional support, and even against those initially deemed privileged (e.g. reverse discrimination).


Justice: Fixing the system


Justice is not only about distributing resources fairly, or giving extra help where it’s needed; it’s also about restructuring systems of power and privilege so that everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their identity, can access all the resources and opportunities that allow them to achieve their desired outcome.


A modern library where children of many backgrounds are able to freely and easily access all the books they need
Image created by the author, using Microsoft Designer

We all dream of a world where we have addressed the root causes of inequity. A just approach would not only provide disadvantaged students and patients with financial aid and academic support but also advocate for policies that address the systemic issues contributing to educational disparities, such as racial and ethnic inequities, school segregation, disparities in access to technology, and standardized testing bias. In healthcare, everyone would have access to culturally appropriate, affordable, and timely care, regardless of their identity.


Advantages:


  • Root Cause Solutions: Tackles underlying issues causing disparities.

  • Sustainable Fairness: Creates long-term, systemic change.

  • Inclusive Policies: Ensures institutional practices support all individuals.


Challenges:


While critics of equity often argue that justice is the ultimate solution to systemic societal issues, it’s important to remember that centuries of systemic racism and inequity can’t be undone overnight.


  • Implementation: True justice requires substantial policy shifts and resources.

  • Time: Long-term process to see significant results.


What you can do


The debate between equity and equality in education and healthcare highlights the complexity of creating an ideal, just system which will take effort and time, after centuries of inequity.


Whether you are on the receiving end of inequity or not; whether you believe there is not much you can do; I hope that next time you hear these terms thrown around, you’ll know they’re more than just buzzwords. They’re key mechanisms to create a fairer, more just world where everyone can succeed.

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. — Benjamin Franklin

For those of us who are not policymakers, the first step toward true fairness involves understanding the issues and committing to act justly in our surroundings, ensuring everyone has access to essential resources regardless of identity. Ask yourself: “What am I doing to create meaningful opportunities for all my patients/students/coworkers/employees according to their needs?”


Recognizing that many individuals have untapped potential due to limiting circumstances is vital. As a society, we share the collective responsibility to help these individuals realize their potential. For healthcare providers and educators, this includes making every effort however small, to improve access to education, prevention, and treatments, to the best of our ability and according to the individual circumstances of our institutions and environments.

You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. — Marian Wright Edelman

While controversial, affirmative action and similar equity-driven programs found in many nations assist in advancing toward a just society by enhancing opportunities for historically underserved and marginalized individuals until true justice can be achieved. I must acknowledge that like any effort targeting specific groups, these initiatives can be misused and that a focused emphasis on diversity may at times create injustices. However, denying the need for change, criticizing existing mechanisms for change and choosing to do nothing, or ignoring centuries of marginalization is simply unacceptable.



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