Equity and Inequality

Do you want to be treated the same as everybody else? Do you think it's important that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully? The demand for equality and equity is important as it ensures that individuals and subgroups of society are not treated differently because of any reason relating to their background, character or circumstances. The Equality Act helps to work towards a state of equality and, in doing so, reduces the presence of discrimination. Equity and inequality are important concepts to understand, and are even more important to implement (in the case of equity) or get rid of (in the case of inequality). 

Equity and Inequality Equity and Inequality

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Table of contents

    Equality definition

    Equality refers to equal opportunities for individuals and/or groups within society. In theory, this principle aims to apply to everybody irrespective of background, race, gender, class, disability, religion, sexuality and other such characteristics. That being said, equality is not often something that is seen in practice. This can be a result of many factors, including discrimination, lack of opportunities and biases. To name just a few examples, issues of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, classism and ableism can perpetuate inequality throughout society.

    Equity and Inequality A weighing machine as a symbol of justice StudySmarterInequality can lead to injustice, Pixabay.

    Equality vs. equitability

    The difference between equality and equitability is often something that is misunderstood. Despite common perceptions, these two terms have distinct differences:


    Equality assumes that everybody has access to exactly the same opportunities and resources. This could mean that people are held to the same standard (e.g. expectations to obtain certain qualifications or possess particular skills), have access to the same equipment or something as simple as being able to afford certain things.

    Equality and diversity

    If everyone is held to the same standard, in theory diversity should be enriched. What does this mean? This means that in a school, on a management board or anywhere else you might find people of all genders, races, sexualities, religions and backgrounds.

    This sounds good - right? In theory, equality is good. However, in practice, it is not quite so simple. There are several objects in the way for certain individuals and/or subgroups of society that may mean that, even with the same expectations, equipment and skills, there is not the same access to things. This is because the concept of equality does not account for the fact that individuals and groups do not necessarily come from the same backgrounds and have the same requirements. This is where equitability comes in:


    Equitability, by contrast, acknowledges that not everybody has the same opportunities, resources and/or ‘starting off points’. It looks at providing people with opportunities and resources based on their needs and, by doing so, grants people a chance to operate on a more level playing field (equity). This essentially means that any discriminatory or biased influences can be addressed and eradicated to ensure justice.

    Let’s take a look at a hypothetical example to illustrate these terms in better detail:

    Imagine that there are two students applying for the same university:

    Student A and Student B. Student A has been privately educated, with access to the best library in the country, a laptop and people who have gone through the university application process before.

    Student B has had a lower-quality education and does not have access to the Internet. Instead, they have fuelled their passion through reading books they have been given by friends.

    The university expects both students to obtain 2 Bs and a C grade in their end of year exams to qualify for a place the following year. In this instance, there is equality because there is the same expectation of both candidates, even though they come from different backgrounds. However, the case is not equitable. Why? Because Student A is at an inherent advantage because of their educational background and social connections.

    To make this example equitable, Student B would need to be provided with additional support in terms of access to the same books, Internet, and useful connections.

    Equity and Inequality A library StudySmarterBetter access to education can increase equality, Pixabay

    It is important to remember the difference between (in)equality and (in)equity and to not use the terms interchangeably. Try to think of a few examples of inequality and inequity that you have seen or heard about in your day-to-day life.

    Equality and inequality in society

    Equality can and should exist between all individuals and societal groups. We can divide the concept of equality into different types, dependent on who is being compared and contrasted: equality between people displaying certain characteristics; political equality; economic equality and equality of opportunities. Time to define them!

    Equality between people displaying certain characteristics (e.g. gender equality; racial equality): for example, gender equality calls for the equal treatment of people of different genders, and racial equality calls for the equal treatment of people of all races.

    Political equality: equal treatment of people with varying political views (e.g. offers the same right to vote and the same platform to voice opinions).

    Economic equality: offers equal treatment to people of contrasting economic backgrounds.

    Equality of opportunities: aims to ensure that people are given the same opportunities irrespective of background. These opportunities can be social, economic and/or political in nature. For example, someone should not be afforded a lower social status simply because of economic background, and someone should not be offered lower wages because of their gender or disability.

    From looking at these different types of equality, we can begin to consider what types of inequality exist when these equalities don't happen in practice. But what is geography without a few examples?

    Equality and inequality examples

    Let's consider two of the major examples of equality and inequality: those related to gender and globalisation.

    Gender equality - what is it?

    We have briefly mentioned that gender equality happens when people of different genders are treated the same. So, it may come as no surprise that gender inequality arises where people of different genders are treated differently because of their gender. This is actually illegal in many countries but is still commonplace. Let's take a look at some examples of gender equality and gender inequality and consider their implications:

    Gender equalityGender inequality
    Where women are given the same standards to meet in order to be promoted as men, there is gender equality. It is safe to say that many of the big companies are now much more aware of the different treatment that has historically prevented women from accessing leadership positions, even though they are as qualified, if not more so, than their male counterparts.The glass ceiling is a term used to describe a barrier that prevents people from getting promoted in their job. It is often used when referring to the fact that women have historically been overlooked for leadership positions. When you look at the management boards of many companies, you may notice that there are more men than women. This is an example of gender inequality.
    Gender equality is not just about having the same job opportunities, gender equality can also be social. This means that people of different genders all feel comfortable in different spaces (e.g. walking home alone at night). The gender pay gap demonstrates the difference between what men and women are paid for doing exactly the same job. Does this seem fair? Not at all! It is an example of gender inequality which has been made illegal in many countries.
    Gender equality can even be as simple as acknowledging and accepting all genders. Do passports in the UK currently allow someone to identify as a non-binary? No! Gender equality would mean that all genders are formally acknowledged and accepted.It isn't just women and men that are victims of gender inequality. There are many genders apart from 'male' and 'female'. One such example is being 'non-binary'. Often, people not conforming to binary genders (e.g. identifying as male or female) face discrimination and unfavourable treatment as a result of their gender.

    It is important to remember that gender doesn't necessarily just mean male and female. Thinking like this actually increases the likelihood of contributing to gender inequality for people of other genders.

    Equality and inequality in globalisation

    Globalisation is increasing the flows of people, information and capital across the world. You can read all about how it works in our explanation of the Globalising World. There are many advantages and disadvantages associated with the process; equality and inequality are examples of such benefits and shortcomings. But why and how does this happen?

    Increasing flows of money and labour can help to create equality between countries by working to redistribute some of the world's economic activity. By moving manufacturing across the world to countries in Asia, for example, globalisation works to provide a source of income and employment. In many cases, this increases equality because the increased economic activity can allow countries to develop, thus improving the quality of life for their populations. However, this doesn't always work in practice. Why? Because the big companies which encourage these enhanced flows (Transnational Corporations) often repatriate their profits. This means that money they make from outsourcing their production is brought back to the management and so the country doing the work doesn't get to see or benefit from a lot of the money that it generates. This exacerbates economic inequality by allowing rich countries / companies to get richer, while exploiting poorer countries.

    What is the Equality Act?

    The Equality Act is a piece of legislation designed to create equality by protecting individuals and encouraging the implementation of equal opportunities. The Act identifies different types of potential discrimination that people face and outlines some ‘protected characteristics.' In the UK, the Equality Act was enforced in 2010. This being said, it is important to understand that many countries have their own versions of the equality act, which are very similar to that of the UK.

    The Equality Act outlines 9 protected characteristics. These characteristics often form a significant part of a person’s identity. According to the law, it is illegal to discriminate against an individual or group on the basis of any of the protected characteristics.

    The protected characteristics are as follows:

    • Sex/gender

    • Race

    • Religion

    • Sexuality

    • Disability

    • Gender reassignment

    • Marital status

    • Pregnancy/maternity

    • Age

    If an individual or company discriminates against someone on the basis of any one of these protected characteristics, they may face legal proceedings (e.g. a court case) and prosecution (e.g. fines). Essentially, the identification of these characteristics aims to ensure that people are not being unfairly treated because of these factors.

    Types of Discrimination

    There are 4 main types of discrimination:

    Direct discrimination: This type of discrimination happens when you are treated differently and less favourably than others because of a given factor. This can be one of the protected characteristics outlined in the previous deep dive.

    Indirect discrimination: Unlike direct discrimination, indirect discrimination happens when there is a standardised phenomenon (e.g. a rule, a policy or a guideline) that affects some people more negatively than others, thus giving them a disadvantage in a given circumstance.

    Harassment: This type of discrimination encompasses all unwanted behavioural instances or events in which a person is intimidated, embarrassed or offended. Some examples of harassment include abusive remarks or online communications, physical gestures or actions and the sharing of offensive/harmful images.

    Victimisation: Victimisation discrimination happens when you are treated poorly because of an attempt to draw attention to previous discriminatory behaviour or to ally with a victim of discrimination. This might include an employer being unkind to an employee because they have complained about them or a colleague being discriminated against.

    Why is equality important?

    Equality and equitability are important concepts because they look to eradicate the unfair treatment of much of the world’s population. They are very strongly linked with the important concept that is Human Rights. Without the introduction of measures that aim to reach a point of equality, many people are at risk of being condemned to struggles socially, economically and/or politically. These struggles can vary considerably depending on the underlying cause for the difference in treatment or opportunity. If we look at some common examples of inequality that exist, this is evident.

    Equity and Inequality Inequality Protest StudySmarterA protest against inequality in America - Stephen Luke, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

    For instance, women and people of colour have been shown to receive lower wages than their white male counterparts, and previously people were relocated to concentration camps simply because of their religious beliefs.

    Both examples of inequality, while incredibly different with inherently different impacts, generate negative impacts on subgroups of society. These negative impacts have the potential to prevent or limit the success of individuals, which can result in a range of social and economic struggles. Therefore, it is important to reduce this so that the quality of life of all people is higher.

    Equity and Inequality - Key takeaways

    • Equality aims to provide individuals with the same opportunities and resources.
    • Equitability accounts for differences in backgrounds and circumstances. Therefore, it enables people to operate on a level playing field irrespective of background and/or circumstance.
    • Equality can take many different forms and can occur between individuals and subgroups of society.
    • The Equality Act is a legislative method of managing inequality and preventing discriminatory behaviour.
    • The Act identifies the 4 different types of discrimination and the 9 protected characteristics of which discrimination is unlawful.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Equity and Inequality

    What are the main points of the equality act?

    The main points of the equality act are that people cannot lawfully be treated differently on account of any of the 9 protected characteristics.

    What are the 4 types of discrimination?

    Direct discrimination; indirect discrimination; harassment and victimisation.

    What are the 9 protected characteristics of the equality act?

    Gender/sex; race; sexuality; religion; gender reassignment; marital status; age; disability and pregnancy/maternity.

    What is equality and diversity?

    Equality is the provision of equal resources and opportunities for all people. Diversity is the inclusion of people from all backgrounds (e.g. different genders; races; sexualities etc.).

    What is an example of equal opportunity?

    Examples of equal opportunities include holding people to the same expectations (e.g. by way of qualifications; skillset; abilities) and offering people the same experience as others.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was the Equality Act enacted in the UK?

    True or false: victimisation can only occur if you have previously been discriminated against.

    How many types of discrimination are there?

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