What Is The Difference Between “Equality” And “Equity”?

Children are often concerned with issues of fairness: who has more, who was first, and who is best. That’s not fair, they clamor at the first hint of any sort of inequality. Of course, some concepts related to equality can be difficult for children to grasp—but many of these concepts continue to pose thorny problems for us as adults making and enforcing policies and laws.

For example, the words equality and equity are often confused because they appear to mean the same thing at a glance. They both have to do with the way people are treated, and both are used in the fields of law, government, economics, and so on. Often, these terms are used to describe actions, laws, or rules that are attempting to end or oppose injustice or ensure fair treatment of people.

However, equality and equity are not synonyms, and the methods used to achieve them are often very different. Let’s look at what these two words actually mean and how we should be using them.

What does equality mean?

The word equality is defined as “the state or quality of being equal; correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability.” The adverb equally is commonly used to describe things related to equality.

Equality is usually simple to understand: three buckets that all contain five apples are in a state of equality. They all have exactly the same amount of the exact same items. Similarly, if I gave each of my two children an allowance of 10 dollars a week, that is equality. I am giving each child the exact same amount of money.

In everyday speech, we often use the word equality to refer to much more complicated and, often, controversial subjects. For example, several of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States (as well as the original document) legally establish equality of rights for all Americans.

Today, all Americans of any gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. have the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and many other rights. Under the law, Americans have equality in the sense that nobody can be legally denied these rights based on any personal quality.

The first records of the word equality come from the later 1300s. It originates from the Latin aequālitāt-, a stem of the word aequālitās. Equality is a combination of the word equal, meaning “the same” or “like in quantity or degree,” and the suffix -ity, which indicates a state or or condition.

The word equality, first recorded in English around 1350–1400, comes from the same root as equal: the Latin aequus, meaning “even, plain, just.”

What does equity mean? 

The word equity is defined as “the quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality” or “something that is fair and just.” Equity also has several meanings related to finance and property law that aren’t relevant for our discussion. The adjective form of equity is equitable.

You can probably guess from reading the definition that equity is more complicated than equality and we will be getting to that. For now, it is important to understand what equity means. If you are trying to achieve equity, you are trying to do something in a way that is fair or impartial.

In criminal law, many practices are done to try and achieve equity where every person is given a fair and impartial trial. For example, a person is tried by a jury of their peers who they have never met and who have no reason to be supportive of or opposed to the defendant. This is meant to ensure equity as none of the jurors will have biased views toward the defendant, so they will be treated fairly and impartially.

The complication with equity is that people often disagree on what is “just” or “fair.” These are subjective concepts and, as a result, laws and policies that attempt to achieve equity are often challenged in court or are highly controversial. For example, the American idea of affirmative action that aims to achieve equity in employment and education by discouraging biased or bigoted hiring practices and promoting equal opportunity has been repeatedly criticized and challenged in court for attempting to achieve equity using supposedly unfair or unjust methods.

Compared to equality, equity is found slightly earlier in the written record, evidenced between 1275–1325. But equity ultimately comes from the exact same root as equality and equal: the Latin aequus, “even, plain, just.”

Why interest in equity has surged

In modern times, the usage of the word equity has increased due to concerns about social and racial justice and a desire for fairness for marginalized communities and historically oppressed groups. In terms of the law, minority groups often have technically equal rights but are still treated unfairly due to unequal access to resources or opposition from dominant groups who deny others equal representation while still acting within the law.

Historically oppressed groups such as LGBTQIA people, Black people, and Indigenous Peoples have not only fought for social and racial equality, but continue to fight for equity in society. For example, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that minority groups undeniably have social inequity when it comes to healthcare access after racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus. The World Health Organization has also done studies on the lack of equality and equity when it comes to worldwide public health. Elsewhere, there is still a clear lack of social equity for minority groups in many areas of society that include everything from Hollywood to many STEM fields and careers. Today, many nonprofit organizations work toward achieving both equality and equity for groups that have historically not been treated equally or fairly. 

How do we use equality and equity?

The best way to show the difference between equality and equity is with an example. Let’s assume I wanted to distribute food to a group of children and adults. If I wanted equality, I would simply give the same amount of food to everybody. If I wanted equity, however, things become more complicated: how do I distribute the food “fairly” or “justly”? Should children get less food because they can’t eat as much? Should I give different rations to different people based on how hungry they say they are? Regardless of the criteria I use, my attempt at trying to decide a “fair” distribution and not an “equal” one means I am looking to achieve equity and not equality.

This example shows the key difference between equality and equity: equality means things are “the same” and equity means things are “fair.” It is certainly possible that something can be equal but not equitable and something could alternatively be equitable but not equal.

For example, if I gave a rich woman and a poor woman each $100 then it would be an example of equality since I gave both the same amount of money. However, it could be said that this is not an example of equity because the rich woman doesn’t need more money and it is “unfair” to give her the same help as the poor woman.

Alternatively, if I gave a rich woman $100 and I gave a poor woman $200 then it could be said I am trying to achieve equity by “fairly” giving the poor woman more help based on her financial situation. However, I am clearly not practicing equality because I didn’t give both women the same amount of money.

The ongoing struggle for equity

Ideally, we would be able to achieve both equality and equity when it comes to the law and society but this is usually very difficult. (And refereeing battles at home can be equally tricky, even if they play out on a much smaller scale.)

However, now that you know the difference between equality and equity, you should have a better idea about what goal a person is trying to achieve and the proper word to use to describe it.


Advocating for equality and equity is monumental task to take up, so it might help to start the lessons at home first. Check out our article “How To Respond When Kids Say ‘No Fair'”  for a start in the right direction.

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