Imagine you are facing a wall with two friends. This wall is 7 feet tall. You are about 6-foot-2 and your friends are 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-2. You need a stool to see over the wall, so you get yourself a box that is 10 inches tall. The principle of equality would say that this same box should be provided for your two friends as well, and that is sufficient. You all are provided the same materials to do the same task. Is this not fair?
This method of doling out boxes according to the principle of equality does not work. Clearly, if you are any good at mental math, you know that it is only you who can see over the wall. Your friends, having different needs in accordance with their heights, are still stuck staring at bricks.
Equality is not the same as equity. Equality is not enough.
The problem with equality is that it requires there to be one standard to which everything is set. In the wall example, you are the standard by which boxes are doled out. But since neither of your friends can see over the wall, the standard leaves something to be desired by the majority of your friend group.
This question of equality vs. equity comes up a lot in policymaking, and a prime example of this regards issues of gender.
It’s safe to say that most of the time, policymakers operate on the principle of presumed equality, but who is the standard for this type of equality? This should be an easy answer—the cisgender man. When politicians decide what is needed by “the average American citizen” they are talking about what is needed by cis men. This is why, when talking about issues like reproductive rights, restroom accessibility, and women’s healthcare, people (men) often cry out, “Special treatment! Why is the government giving handouts to these people? They get extra help when we get nothing!”
When a standard is set to your needs, one has a tendency to take that for granted. A cis man does not have to worry about how much he spends on tampons every month, or where the nearest gender-neutral restroom is, so these are not concerns for him when he writes policies and laws, even though these policies affect more people than just him.
As in the wall scenario, the standard is set by a privileged minority who write policies to the standards that they witness. They call equality “good enough” while homeless women bleed in the streets and trans people are brutally attacked for using the wrong restroom.
Equity means something more than equality. Equity means that everyone not only has the RIGHT to do certain things, but that everyone has the MEANS and the ABILITY to do certain things. A right without ability is not a right at all. Women and queer people have the RIGHT to reproductive healthcare, but this does not mean they have access to it 100% of the time. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress in 2017 found that 29% of transgender respondents who had visited a doctor in the last year said that they had been refused care because of their actual or perceived gender identity. And this is one of the least depressing statistics.
The fundamental right to healthcare does not stop people from crying “special treatment” when it is suggested that we remove the tampon tax, or that we create more gender-neutral restrooms, or if, god forbid, we need to get an abortion.
The cis man will say that this is not fair, this is not equal, as women and queers are receiving special treatment from the government, but this is, in fact, exactly what equity is. It is not special treatment, as different people have very different needs and functions. People are different heights, and therefore need different sized boxes to see over the wall. People have different bodies and gender identities and therefore require different kinds of healthcare. Scenarios like this are a rare instance in which the cis man is not the standard, and this vexes him greatly.
This vexation is why we find so much resistance to passing laws in areas that do not directly affect or favor cis men. We find it in policies concerning birth control, restroom accessibility, paid maternity leave, gender transitions, and the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few.
We need to push for true equity and not settle for mere equality. You may only need a 10-inch box, but your 5-foot-2-inch friend needs a bit more than that. We need to recognize where privilege lies and accept that there are ways in which we need to compensate, especially given everything that is going on in the world right now. Equality is not enough. If those people with privilege help bring equity to those people without, then maybe, that will be enough.