Let’s be clear about equity and equality: they’re not the same

Recent events make clear that it is easy to create confusion about the difference between equity and equality. Understanding the difference is critical to public service roles, as well as to broader discussions.

Australia likes to see itself as fair, equal, egalitarian. So why do we need equal opportunity programs and what is equity?

Here is what organisations that specialise in these terms tell us.

All humans are equal in dignity and rights

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. Australia was an original signatory to this Declaration in 1948.

Treating people equally means treating them the same.

The Australian Human Rights Commission explains that equality is ‘recognising that, as human beings, we all have the same value. This means, we all have the same rights, we should all receive the same level of respect, and have the same access to opportunities. This isn’t just a nice idea – there are actual laws supporting this’.

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in part: ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’.

Treating people equally is supported by laws to prevent people being discriminated against. The Attorney-General’s Department explains:

‘Non-discrimination is an integral part of the principle of equality. It ensures that no one is denied their rights because of factors such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property or birth. In addition to those grounds, discrimination on certain other grounds may also be prohibited. These grounds include age, nationality, marital status, disability, place of residence within a country and sexual orientation.’

Discrimination may be direct or indirect. Indirect discrimination can occur when a requirement looks neutral but has disproportionate or unintended negative impact on particular groups. For example, when recruiting new staff, a selection panel may indirectly discriminate against people by their interpretation of their name, type of previous experience, or their assumed age.

But, treating people the same may not be fair

Take equality before the law. Equality before the law is a fundamental concept of our legal system, but as the Judicial Commission of NSW explains, this equality does not necessarily mean “same treatment”.

‘Everyone who comes into contact with the court system (whether represented or self-represented) must not only be treated fairly and without discrimination, but also believe they are being treated fairly and without any form of discrimination — otherwise, public confidence in the judicial system will be compromised.’

Further, the Commission points out that ‘people from disadvantaged backgrounds (no matter what other group they happen to belong to) have the greatest likelihood of being both a victim of personal crime, and/or of being involved in crime. For example:

  • ‘Three quarters of domestic assault victims were women or children.
  • Indigenous women are vastly over-represented as victims of domestic assault.
  • Older victims, those who were married and victims of assaults that did not involve weapons or serious injury were less likely to report to police.
  • There are higher rates of victims and reporting of domestic assault in the most disadvantaged socio-economic areas, based on income, education and employment characteristics.’
What is equity?

The Human Rights Commission says:

‘Equity is about everyone achieving equal outcomes. We all have the same value and deserve a good life, but we all start from a different place. We are also all wonderfully different and experience the world in our own unique way. It’s because of these differences that we sometimes need to be treated differently for us all to live safely, healthily, happily…and equally! This means that we need to look at what individual people and communities need in order to achieve equity.’

Barriers prevent people enjoying equal rights

Immigration South Australia explains that: ‘Australian society is based on the principles of egalitarianism. As an egalitarian society, Australia and Australians believe that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. We value and respect freedom of dignity, religion and respect the rule of law.’

Further, they state that: ‘Australians believe in the right to a “fair go” regardless of a person’s background. We believe everyone should be treated with respect, equality and fairness’. While an admirable goal, what is the reality?

Equity is about fairness. Even though a situation may appear equal for all, sometimes people are still disadvantaged or excluded due to ongoing prejudice, discrimination, and ignorance. For example, if a building can only be accessed by a flight of stairs, people who are unable to mount those stairs will be unable to enter the building. Information that is only available in printed format will be inaccessible for people who are unable to read it.

While laws give people formal equality – treating people the same – they do not ensure that everyone enjoys equal rights. This is because there are systemic and structural barriers that prevent people from enjoying actual equal rights. To overcome these barriers, people’s actual circumstances need to be considered.

Confusing equity and equality

The 2023 referendum on a Voice to Parliament saw arguments put that confused equity and equality, calling the Voice racist. As many have explained, the Voice did not prioritise one race over another, nor did it propose racial segregation policies, nor grant special rights. In order to be ‘free and equal’ disadvantaged groups may need unique representation and/or assistance.

Chin Tan, Race Discrimination Commissioner, AHRC 2018-2023, explained in April 2023 that the Voice was not racist nor inequitable. Tan writes that ‘the argument that a voice would create inequality by inserting race into the constitution is … plain wrong … because the Australian constitution already includes several provisions about race’ and that ‘Denying Indigenous Australians a voice in decisions that affect them will only serve to maintain racial inequality and continue the marginalisation and disempowerment of First Nations people’.

A recent example illustrates how racial inequality works in practice. A damning report by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, of the NSW Police’s Suspect Targeting Management Plan for people under 18, found that First Nations young people were disproportionately targeted and are overpoliced, overcharged and overincarcerated. This program, aimed to target likely offenders before they commit crimes, is described as “Unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory in its effect on children and young people.”

Vicki Sentas, Senior Lecturer UNSW Law, writes: ‘It was fundamentally a punitive surveillance approach, which made police the first responders for First Nations young people’. What Aboriginal children need, she writes, ‘is culturally appropriate, therapeutic, trauma-informed services run by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations’.

NSW Police has dropped the Suspect Targeting Management Plan for people under 18 and will soon scrap it entirely.

Australia endorsed, in 2009, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 2 of this declaration states:

‘Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.’

Eminent historian Henry Reynolds, succinctly summarises the historical context to the referendum in his article Racism: The unstated Australian agenda? He closes by pointing out that Article 30/2 of the Declaration declares that:

‘States shall undertake effective consultations with the indigenous people concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, prior to using their lands or territories for military activities.’

While Australia likes to think of itself as fair and egalitarian, it is clear that racist forces were at play during the referendum and have an impact on equality.

What is equal opportunity?

So, if equality means having access to the same opportunities, what is equal opportunity?

The Australia Institute’s 2006 report Equality of Opportunity in Australia Myth or Reality, explains that there are several barriers that impact negatively on social mobility in Australia, limiting the degree of equality of opportunity. These barriers relate to discrimination, employment, education, health, housing, transport, and welfare traps. The conclusion the report’s writer, Fred Argy, reaches is:

‘Australian society has some of the most open, efficient and competitive markets in the world. Yet these markets are not producing equality of opportunity in any reasonable sense.  Many Australians are impeded by childhood experiences such as dysfunctional home environments, low parental incomes and aspirations, and poor networking. These experiences then perpetuate disadvantage in adulthood.  And many Australians suffer from serious access barriers to employment, education (especially pre-school and early primary education), health care, good housing and other key services.’  (p. 47) This is why active measures are needed to foster equality of opportunity.

The 2014 report Advance Australia Fair? What to do about growing inequality in Australia and the 2018 report A Fair Go for All Australians: Urgent Action Required, explain how inequality of income and wealth has increased, with power, money and resources distributed unequally across the social hierarchy. This inequality ‘leads to unfairness in the immediate circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, including levels of pay and other conditions of work, access to quality health care, schools and education, social protection, the affordability of homes and the nature of communities, towns, or cities’. (p. 16, Advance Australia Fair?)

Inequality based on gender

Inequality based on gender provides an ongoing example of how equal people experience inequities.

The introduction to A 10-year plan to unleash the full capacity and contribution of women to the Australian economy 2023-2033, written by the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, states:

‘Australia is currently held back from reaching its full social and economic potential by pervasive and systemic gender inequality. Entrenched and rigid gender norms and enduring bias maintain a social context where gender inequality is assumed, accepted and encoded in everyday life.’ (p. 11)

The Chair of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, Sam Mostyn AO, writes in her report Message:

‘Despite some progress over recent years, Australian women still face deep and broad-ranging gender inequality and continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden of unpaid labour across all spheres of life. From being caregivers, nurturers and educators to taking on professional roles and community leadership – women’s essential contributions are often undervalued and unpaid, perpetuating economic inequality.’ (p. 7)

The report points out that: ‘We can’t ignore the strong link between women’s economic insecurity and violence. Australian women continue to experience shocking levels of violence and abuse, whether that’s in their homes, workplaces or in the public realm.’ (p. 9)

The NCAS is the world’s longest-running population-level survey of community attitudes towards violence against women. While Australians’ attitudes to violence against women and gender inequality have improved over the last decade, many people’s knowledge and attitudes are out of step with the evidence and women’s experience of violence. A substantial minority continue to misunderstand the gendered nature of domestic violence.

Australia remains, in general, a sexist country. Research by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and IPSOS found that Australian men have some of the most sexist views in the Western world, including the belief that ‘gender inequality doesn’t really exist’. They also found that almost 1 in 4 Australian men think using sexist or misogynistic language online is sometimes acceptable.

Monash University’s masculinities project website offers some facts about Australian masculinity, including that:

  • ‘Young men aged 18-30 who most strongly agree with rigid gender stereotypes report poorer levels of mental health, engage in risky drinking, are more likely to be in car accidents and to report committing acts of violence, online bullying and sexual harassment’
  • ‘Research shows that a large percentage of young Australian men believe and feel pressure to be self-sufficient, tough, physically attractive in order to be successful, the breadwinner of families, hypersexual, aggressive and controlling.’
  • ‘Evidence demonstrates the fact that masculinity is not innate or fixed. It’s a dynamic construction that shifts and changes over time and place.’

Many factors reinforce rigid gender norms. Victorian organisations released a joint statement on misogyny in the Australian media. Of concern are ‘headlines that paint men who murder their partners as ‘good blokes’, … articles that sexualise women and girls, that aim to take down women in positions of power, … and social media content and radio segments that encourage audiences to vilify women who are brave enough to share their stories.’

What would a gender equal world look like? Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency says we would see:

  • ‘Equal access to education for girls and boys
  • Equal representation of women in leadership positions in workplaces and politics
  • Recognition of the value of unpaid and domestic work
  • Equal access to the economic resources such as financial services, inheritance and natural resources
  • No discrimination against women and girls
  • No gendered violence.’

Calls for 50:50 government representation unhelpfully represents gender equality as a numbers game proportional to population. Real gender equality will only be achieved when women regularly make up 100% of a government, council, board, meeting, even a conference program, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s accepted as normal, everyday practice. That’s success.

Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating simply reversing centuries of men holding 100% of the key spots. All I’m saying is that when women can hold a majority or all such positions without comment, only then will we have success.

Here’s some further suggestions on what gender equality would look like:

  • Women would make up at least 70% of the Australia Day Awards.
  • The final game of the Australian Tennis Open would alternate between the women’s and men’s game.
  • No adult woman would ever be called a girl.
  • The PM’s 11 would alternative between the women’s and men’s cricket teams.
  • Pink would cease to be a colour reference for women.

Even with all the efforts to give women equity, there is still a long way to go to ensure equality of opportunity.

In summary:
  • Equality means people are of the same value.
  • Equal opportunity means people have the same chances of success in life.
  • Equity means people achieve equal outcomes.
  • Many factors operate to prevent people being treated equally and achieving success in life.
  • Treating people the same ignores the many factors that prevent people being treated fairly.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.