Equality is a political ideal that all human beings have equal worth and deserve equal opportunities in life, regardless of race, gender, caste, etc.
Until a few decades ago, one’s skin color played a massive role in their life: in the United States, black Americans could not drink water or use the same washrooms as white citizens. They were segregated in schools, had limited job opportunities, and also faced discrimination in housing.
Today, however, things have changed significantly. All marginalized groups—racial minorities, women, people with disabilities, etc.—are now being treated with more respect and are getting more opportunities in life.
But what exactly does “equality” mean? Does it mean that everyone should be treated the same, regardless of social inequalities & historical context? Should we measure equality at the starting point or the outcome? How far should a government go to ensure equality?
These are just some of the questions that we will be discussing here. We will begin by learning the concept in more detail and then looking at some examples. Finally, we will compare equality with equity.
Definition of Equality
The Equality and Human Rights Commission defines equality in the following way:
Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.
It adds that “no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability” (2018).
The conceptions of social equality go as far back as Ancient Greek philosophy, and later, post-Reformation political philosophy provided a secular foundation for social equality. There are various standards of equality, such as
- Ontological: It states that everyone is created equal at birth; this formulation is present in various places, including the United States Declaration of Independence.
- Equality of opportunity: This conception tries to create a level playing field so that everyone has an equal chance to acquire wealth, social prestige, and power.
- Equality of outcome: It tries to ensure that everyone ends up with the same benefits in the end. This conception is particularly useful in education.
- Gender Equality: Gender equality seeks to ensure that people of all genders get equal opportunities. Until a century ago, women did not even have the right to vote in many parts of the world. Things have improved significantly since then, but there is still a long way to go. Women still earn less than men (around 80%) for the same work (Aragao, 2023). They are severely underrepresented in leadership positions and continue to face gender-based violence. Besides women, we also need to ensure that people from the LGBTQ+ community get equal opportunities.
- Racial/Ethnic Equality: In most countries, there are laws that seek to prevent any form of racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to dismantle institutionalized racism in the United States. Similarly, in the UK, anti-discrimination laws were implemented in the 1970s. But despite these, colored individuals continue to face many challenges, from receiving adequate education to finding the right employment opportunities.
- Global Inequality: The world’s richest 1% of the population owns more than 45% of the world’s wealth (Credit Suisse, 2022), a clear indicator of the massive global inequality. Due to globalization, the world has become one big interconnected unit. However, there are incredible differences in wealth and power, with advanced industrial countries owning most of it. This causes geopolitical issues, particularly when the most powerful and wealthy nations exert undue influence on less powerful nations that have less leverage.
- Economic Equality: Economic equality, also known as wealth equality, involves a balanced and equitable distribution of assets, income, and access to opportunities among individuals and groups in society. Wealth distribution inequality remains a global issue, with the world’s richest 1% owning more than half of the global wealth. Poverty, unemployment, inadequate access to education and healthcare are some of the issues linked to economic inequality. Governments and organizations around the world are striving for solutions to bridge this gap.
- Age Equality: Age equality is all about not discriminating against someone because of their age. It ensures that people of all ages have the same rights and opportunities. Despite provisions against age discrimination in employment and public services in many countries, older people are often subject to unfair treatment and blatant discrimination, especially in job recruitment and workplace environments. Raising awareness about the contributions and potential of older adults is crucial for promoting age equality.
- Disability Equality: Disability equality advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Despite the implementation of various legislative measures like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities continue to face discrimination in multiple areas including education, employment, and healthcare. A society truly embraces disability equality when it fosters inclusive environments, removes accessibility barriers and recognizes the full potential of individuals with disabilities.
- Religious Equality: Religious equality is based on the principle that each person has a right to practice their religion freely without discrimination. There have been many laws passed worldwide to protect individuals from religious discrimination such as the U.S. First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. Despite these protections, cases of religious discrimination and persecution continue to be reported worldwide. It’s important to promote understanding and mutual respect between different religious groups to foster religious equality.
- Sexual Orientation Equality: This refers to the equal rights and opportunities for people of all sexual orientations, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and others. Despite progress in laws in many countries, members of the LGBTQ+ community often face discrimination in various sectors, including employment, housing, and healthcare. Societies need to work towards understanding and acceptance to ensure full equality for individuals of all sexual orientations.
- Education Equality: This is about ensuring that all individuals, irrespective of their background or personal circumstances, have equal access to quality education. While there has been improvement, educational disparities still exist, primarily due to factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and geography. Promoting equal opportunities in education can significantly contribute to reducing social inequalities.
- Healthcare Equality: This refers to equal access to quality healthcare regardless of an individual’s socio-economic status, race, gender, age, or disability. Despite advancements in healthcare, inequalities persist globally, often due to economic disparities, geographic location, or discriminatory practices. Achieving healthcare equality involves addressing these barriers and ensuring delivery of adequate healthcare services to all.
- Digital Equality: This is about ensuring all individuals and communities have the same access to digital technologies. As the world becomes more digitally intertwined, those who lack such access are at a significant disadvantage economically and socially. This digital divide tends to affect low-income households and individuals in rural areas more severely. Promoting digital equality requires making technology accessible and affordable for everyone, along with providing necessary digital literacy training.
Here’s a full list of examples:
- Gender equality
- Racial equality
- Economic equality
- Marriage equality
- Educational rights
- Religious freedoms
- LGBT rights
- Age equality
- Disability rights
- Equal healthcare access
- Fair employment standards
- Pay equality
- Housing rights
- Digital access
- Equality of legal representation
- Linguistic equality (e.g. French and English in Canada)
- Ethnic equality
- Immigration status
- Social class rights
- Intergenerational equality
- Environmental justice
- Parental rights
- Voting rights
- Cultural representation
- Equality of opportunity
Types of Equality
There are three main dimensions of equality (NCERT, 2023-24):
1. Political Equality
Political equality means that the nation-state gives equal citizenship to all its members.
This means that the citizens are treated equally by the law, regardless of race, gender, caste, etc. They also have certain basic rights (such as the right to vote, freedom of expression, etc.) that help them to develop themselves and participate in the working of the state.
In South Africa, during apartheid, racial segregation & discrimination were institutionalized by the government itself. The first step of establishing political equality means removing such “formal” barriers” so that the government—at least officially—treats everybody equally. Most countries today have such ideals enshrined in their constitution.
2. Social Equality
Even when countries officially grant equal rights to all citizens, there can (and do) exist significant inequalities.
Such inequalities exist because of the differences in resources and opportunities available to different people. Therefore, political equality needs to be supplemented with social equality, which provides equality of opportunity.
It means that all groups have a fair and equal chance of competing for these opportunities.
This usually involves guaranteeing certain minimum conditions of life to all members of society, such as affordable healthcare, good education, minimum wage, etc. Without these, it would be incredibly difficult for people from various communities to compete on equal terms.
3. Economic Equality
Economic equality seeks to reduce the differences in wealth, property, and income among the citizens.
Of course, absolute economic equality has not and cannot exist in any society; however, the goal here is to remove excessive disparities & create equal opportunities for everyone. Economic equality can be measured through various means, say calculating the relative difference between the richest and poorest groups or finding out the number of people below the poverty line.
When inequalities get entrenched—that is, certain groups of people enjoy considerable wealth and power for generations—they lead to divisions within societies. These can further cause resentment and violence. Moreover, because of the power of the wealthy class, it becomes very difficult to make society egalitarian.
Equality vs Equity
See our Full Guide: Equality vs Equity, Explained
While equality means giving the same opportunities to everyone, equity tries to allocate resources according to need and help everyone reach an equal outcome.
Perhaps the best way to understand the two concepts is through the illustration (“Addressing Imbalance”) in the 2019 Design in Tech Report. It shows a tree that is slightly bent towards the left, and two people are standing underneath it.
Inequality is when an apple randomly falls for the person standing on the left. Now, imagine another scenario, where we give two equal ladders to the bystanders. The person on the left can use it to pluck the apple, but the person on the right still cannot reach the fruits.
This is an excellent representation of equality: we are providing the same resources or opportunities (the ladder) to people, but we have failed to account for their pre-existing unequal situations (the bent nature of the tree).
Now suppose that we gave the person on the right a slightly bigger ladder so that they can also reach the fruit. This is an example of equity. We study the specific conditions of people and then allocate resources accordingly, leading to positive outcomes for everyone.
Equity is a “solution for addressing imbalanced social systems” (MPH@GW). Another definition comes from Paula Dressel of the Race Matters Institute:
“The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone justly according to their circumstances.”
Here’s a real-world example comparing equality and equity. Suppose all public schools in a society have the same number of computers & hours of operation. However, this does not recognize that different parts of society have different socioeconomic statuses.
In lower-income neighborhoods, many homes may not have a single computer. As such, we should allocate more resources there, providing their school labs with more computers & longer hours of operation. In this way, everyone will have access to computers whenever needed.
Equality seeks to treat every human being with respect and provide them with equal opportunities to succeed in life.
It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, etc., and tries to provide everyone a chance to make the most out of their lives. However, giving people equal opportunities doesn’t take into account the pre-existing inequalities of social systems.
In contrast, equity tries to recognize these imbalances and allocate resources/opportunities accordingly. This ultimately leads to positive outcomes for everyone.
Aragao, C. (2023). “Gender pay gap in the U.S. hasn’t changed much in two decades”. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/03/01/gender-pay-gap-facts/
Credit Suisse Research Institute. (2022). Global Wealth Report 2022.
Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2018). “Understanding Equality”. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/secondary-education-resources/useful-information/understanding-equality
MPH@GW. “Equality vs Equity”. The George Washington University. https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/equity-vs-equality/
NCERT. (2023-24). “Chapter 3: Equality” in Political Theory.
Race Matters Institute. 2014. “Racial Equality or Racial Equity? The Difference it Makes”. https://viablefuturescenter.org/racemattersinstitute/2014/04/02/racial-equality-or-racial-equity-the-difference-it-makes/
Ruth, T. (2019). “Addressing Imbalance”. Design in Tech Report 2019. https://designintech.report/2019/03/11/%F0%9F%93%B1design-in-tech-report-2019-section-6-addressing-imbalance/