Equity or Equality?

Lets be honest and frank. Who knows the difference between these two terms? Do most of us even know that these two terms are quite different? Often, we use these terms interchangeably, as if they have similar, if not the same, meanings.

But why is it important to understand these two terms? It is important because that knowledge is important to achieve equality – something that we talk about all the time. Even the United Nations has 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), two of them being Gender Equality and Reduced inequalities.

About two years ago, I was giving a lecture on gender gap in our cities at IIT-Delhi, India, a premier university in the country. During my lecture, I explained that women have gendered roles in society like taking care of families, while also working alongside men, and at the same time, face many hinderances as they move around the cities to carry out their activities. I explained that they do not have equal access to mobility options as they have access to lower financial resources, have multiple trips to make, and face more unsafe conditions while travelling. The male audience, primarily the MSc students and PhDs, were visibly uncomfortable at my suggestions. I got many questions that day from the male audience members, mostly suggesting that there are many other problems in our cities that need attention and gender parity is not the most important thing. I explained to them that gender parity in our cities, in every sphere of life, is important because that is directly linked to the wellness of our families and even the economic growth! However, the question that stuck with me the most, was – “If women really want equality, then why do they need a separate women’s coach in Delhi Metro? Why do they need women-only reserved seats in buses? This is not equality.” Since I come from Delhi, I knew exactly what the insinuations were. They implied that women like to play the victim card, and this was not the first time I had had this question. But this was the first time, I felt really disappointed because I expected more intelligence from these people who were studying at the most premier university. What felt even worse was that I couldn’t understand how to justify a women’s coach in Metro or reserved seats in buses. I tried, but I didn’t feel satisfied with my own answers.

After that lecture, this question kept bothering me, until I found the fitting answer to the question in the picture below.

This picture is a stunning example of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Isn’t it?

But let me still try to use some words and explain this picture. In this picture, three persons with different heights are shown. The different heights represent different levels of privileges that people enjoy. Some of these privileges could be received from birth (like race, family income, parents’ attitudes towards your upbringing/ education etc.), others could be received/ accumulated during the course of your life from societies, political climate etc. In the context of gender gap in cities, men have more privileges than women because the design of cities and physical infrastructure supports the mobility of men much more than that of women. So, the situation to begin with, is not equal. In order to create equality, if we distribute equal number of resources as shown in pic on the left, we are not bridging the gap! The gap can only be closed if the distribution of resources is fair, not necessarily equal. This fair allocation of resources is called equitable distribution or equity and is shown in the pic on right.

Equality can only be achieved through equity, not equality. It is now extremely important to understand the following two main points:

  1. Equality is an outcome. It is not measured in our actions. It is measured by the outcome. Unless, all people in the picture are not able to enjoy equally, equality has not been achieved. Thus, the pic on left does not show equality. Only the pic on right shows equality.
  • Equity is means of achieving equality. It is measured in the process and our actions. A fair distribution of resources is equitable –  equal distribution (as in pic on the left) is not necessarily fair.

Coming back to the question about women only coaches and seats, I think it is clear now that what the audience members referred to, was not equality. These special measures (motivated by equity) are taken to improve the travel experience of women, thereby alleviating some, if not all, problems faced by them on daily basis. These actions allow women to be more mobile and access more economic activities like education and employment. The impact of unsafe travel conditions on women is clear from this news article. Eventually, the gap between genders will close and lead to more equality.

A year later, I was in Finland to give another lecture, this time on Transit-Oriented Development, but after my own lecture, I had the opportunity to attend another lecture on Transport Equity. Although the lecture was very nice, I found that the confusion between equity and equality persisted. I realised that these terms can be tricky to understand and a picture can help tremendously. I used this lesson while designing my TEDx talk last year and I must say, it really helped!

With this post, I hope to reach more people and settle the dust around these two terms. Hope it helped!


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