Equality and equity: What’s in it for me?

The conversation and debate around equality and equity is growing around the world and this is generating a variety of reactions.

Today, those of us who are trying to learn how to communicate and raise awareness about the importance of this topic seem to have more solid evidence from authors, researchers, and practitioners of different fields on the damages caused by growing and perpetuating inequalities across societies.

For people like me, who are actively involved in this topic, this gives us the impression that we’re gaining momentum and that we’re considerably better equipped than the previous generations to spread the good word of fairness and overcome the structural issues that cause injustices around the world like never before. At the end of the day, who in their right mind could oppose to the idea of a fairer world with no discrimination and where no one would have to bear the consequences of not having access to education, health services, job opportunities, and, ultimately, a dignified life?

Image credit: Freepik

However, these concepts are more complex than they sound, and the debate around them requires in-depth analysis and the consideration of many elements. In addition, a growing debate on equality and equity also means that just as more people agree on their benefits and try to disseminate them, other people are also expressing their concerns, with different levels of resistance.

During the Winter School on Equity and Equality on Education and Medicine, I had the chance to learn more about what the concepts of equality and equity mean and to hear from researchers and practitioners how these concepts are applied in their corresponding fields. My fellow students, who came from a variety of countries, study areas, and backgrounds had the opportunity to discuss with them our different perspectives. Finally, we tried to apply what we learned to study cases. In a nutshell, we learned more about these two concepts and then tried to see how they would look in reality and what challenges we would face when trying to realise them.

From a personal perspective, I can say the more I learn about equity and equality, the more passionate I feel about them. This is somehow natural; I have personally experienced inequality throughout my life. I consider myself very fortunate and privileged and have never experienced scarcity. However, I’m now in my early forties and can see retrospectively that the story of my life is full of events where I find myself trying to redress the rules of a game, where I usually don’t have the upper hand and the pitch is actually more tilted against my team, plus the referee seems to have a clear preference for the other side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but this has always been part of my reality back in Mexico, where I’m from, and then in the other countries where I’ve had the opportunity to live.

I became more interested in topics such as inequality when I became a father in Estonia. Then, I started avidly reading books and articles and connected with experts, researchers, and event activists from my country and other parts of the world. When I talked to my psychologist about this, she said, “This is only natural; you don’t want your children to endure the same situations you’ve gone through, and studying and understanding inequalities is the way you’ve found to deal with this”. Long story short, I recently started a PhD in sociology at the University of Tartu, where I had the luck to find that what I wanted to study fell into the university’s research priority lines and academics who are pretty much on the same page with me.

With my family. Image credit: personal collection

However, the more I learn about equality of equity the more I understand the complexity of both concepts and of their implementation in the real world. Reading books and articles, attending conferences and seminars, and talking and learning from experts, fellow students and people who are like-minded reinvigorates me. Nevertheless, going out to the field and trying to talk about equality and equity to people who are not familiar or even too interested in these notions is never an easy task, and it makes you feel how much there is to do for these two principles to become ingrained once and for all in the psyche of humanity, at least to a reasonable extent.

The following are some ideas that I’d like to share as a result of my attendance at the Winter School on Equity and Equality and based on my personal experience, as someone who has decided to embark on a journey to learn more and try to contribute to the debate on how to address inequalities.

Equality and equity are complex concepts

In my experience, everybody has a common sense-based notion of what equality and equity mean. Practically everybody agrees that no children should starve in the world, and it is relatively rare to find someone who wouldn’t feel a bit of compassion when they see another human being hurt, because of an unjust situation.

However, nothing triggers the most heated debates and passions, even among my family and close friends, than when they hear that the ground should be made as flat as possible for everyone so that everybody can reach equal outcomes, which is at the core of these two principles.

Initially, I used to get frustrated about this, but now I think I’m starting to understand it. Even I struggle to explain what equity and equality mean, and sometimes I find it impossible not to trip up my words and mix both terms, not to mention when I have debates around them in a language other than English, as terminology is sometimes difficult to translate.

My friends and family are not selfish or ruthless people (unless we play board games), and I don’t have any sort of radical ideas. If anything, I’m also quite an ambitious business owner. What seems to happen, in my opinion, is that the notions of equality and equity are usually badly framed and get stuck in a number of misconceptions, some of which I’ll try to summarise as follows: i) we need to take away from the rich and give everything to the poor; ii) we should distribute poverty and everybody should be equally unsuccessful; and iii) majority groups should feel ashamed of their historical privileges and minorities should henceforth replace them.

To my understanding, all three previous ideas are incorrect. In answer to the first one, I firmly believe that equality and equity require prosperity to flourish, and prosperity requires wealth. The claim is therefore not against wealth but about how that wealth contributes to making a more prosperous society.

For example, in my country, Mexico, we certainly benefit from having very successful businessmen, but we do not benefit if they take most of their money to tax havens. Personally, I just want them to do what any average Mexican citizen is being required to do: to pay a fair amount of taxes and play fair-game when it comes to doing business. Then, they can go and enjoy life in their country club or gamble at the casino of their preference in Las Vegas, if that’s what they want. Because if they pay taxes and do business ethically, we can have better infrastructure, public services, and education, and more people can live a dignified life, get a decent job, and contribute themselves to a more prosperous society through their talent, work, new businesses, and taxes.

I’ll illustrate the second argument, the distribution of poverty, by providing an actual example. Two years ago, I attended a seminar on residential and school segregation in my country, which is, by the way, one of the most unequal in terms of wealth distribution in the world. The theory was flawlessly presented by a panel of experts, and during the Q&A session, one person raised their hand and asked politely, “This is all very interesting, but how do I benefit from criminals who live in poorer areas and bad schools being equally distributed across my city?”. This is not a silly or cynical question at all. It’s a genuine point made sincerely by a normal individual and illustrates how badly framed and misunderstood are the notions of equity and equality for many people. The question caught everyone by surprise, and the panellists could nor answer satisfactorily, as they got tangled in their own academic terminology. At the time, I wasn’t as ready or confident at all to speak as I feel that I might be now.

However, if I were in that situation again, I would probably try to explain that the idea is not about distributing problems, it is about thinking what we can do so that no area in the city is nasty or rough or any school is labelled as bad. In a nutshell, the discussion is around how we level up the things that are for some reason considered lower in quality, which is very different from bringing down the quality of those that are already up.

As for the argument about limited and standardised success, I’d say that the meaning of both concepts seems to be simply twisted. Equality simply means that everyone is treated the same exact way, regardless of need or any other individual difference. Equity, on the other hand, means that everyone is provided with the same opportunity to realise their potential. For example, to put it in pragmatic terms, how many business ideas, scientific achievements or works of art are lost because many people are left outside the education systems (for a variety of reasons) across most countries? Equal outcomes in this context mean that nobody is denied access to education whatever their background and circumstances are, not that if everyone is educated they would all end up doing the same things and that on top of it, their talent and success would be limited. Equality and equity foster and ensure variety at every single level. Inequalities do exactly the opposite.

The third misconception has to do with the fact that equality and equity means positive discrimination of vulnerable minority groups as compensation for the historic misdemeanours of the privileged majority. Although I strongly believe in the historical damages that resulted from colonisation, I disagree with this idea and firmly believe that positive discrimination is detrimental for creating a fearer society. I can say this, as I’ve worked in the past for organisations that usually fall (unwantedly or not) into this practice by raising the flag of equal opportunities. With all due respect, the best example that comes to my head on this matter, as I lived for nearly seven years in that country and it is close to my heart, is that I salute the ethnic and gender diversity among some of the top members of the current UK Prime Minister’s cabinet.

However, this has no meaning if what they do is to work to push for an agenda that enhances global inequality. In summary, equity and equality is about no discrimination, not about positive discrimination and the diverse make-up of an organisation can be irrelevant if their actions don’t have the principles of equity and equality in their heart. Concerning shame, I think that every individual and nation has to come to terms with their own history and attitudes, and that is subject to a different and also very complex discussion.

In summary, what I want to say is that equity and equality are very complex concepts, and sometimes it might be useful to talk about them with the public by explaining what they do not mean. This leads me to my following point.

Context, context, context

Illustration credit: Pixabay

It is extremely difficult to talk about equity and equality in general terms, as, ultimately, they are abstract concepts that look different depending on the circumstances in which they are applied. In my experience, when this happens the debate between the opposing parties ends up in the discussion of even more abstract and complicated ideas, e.g., neoliberalism, socialism, etc. This not only diverts people from the real issue, but can sometimes lead to the discussing parties feeling that they are being labelled and ultimately stopping the communication.

Therefore, providing context is fundamental when we talk about equity and equality. As we saw during the Winter School, equity and equality have different challenges when applied to education, health, job opportunities, etc. In addition, those challenges can vary in every society, as their composition, history, culture, economy, etc. are different.

One very interesting discussion we had during the Winter School had to do with triage decisions in the German medical system to assign ventilators in the context of Covid-19. The debate on what patients should be prioritised is fascinating, and we could see how complex this decision is just by considering the patients’ age. In addition, we saw how age is perceived differently across countries, depending on cultural aspects, which means that this notion applied to medical decision triage doesn’t have universal value.

Talking about equity and equality allows us to talk about situations instead of abstractions. And when we talk about situations, we talk about people and their stories can help us to generate empathy among the people that we’re trying to bring on board. By doing this, we can better see the underlying issues as well as the people behind them.

And the closer people feel that inequalities could hurt them or their loved ones, the more they are open to change their perceptions and attitudes. Context is very important, but please feel free to continue having philosophical conversations with your friends around a glass of wine. If things get too heated, change the topic, and talk instead about the last comedy you watched on your favourite platform.

Use of language and champions

I’m also learning that equality and equity require the right language. In the academic world, terminology helps us to give a name to concepts and new phenomena and try to grasp its many angles and intricacies. However, when it comes to field work, we must explain things in the simplest way possible.

This means that we should use not only the most suitable language, but the most suitable language register, so that our target audiences understand as much as possible what we’re trying to say.

There are many good reasons for doing this; however, I’ll try to provide two examples to illustrate this. During one of the case studies of the Winter School, we were split in groups to discuss how to provide support and training on the importance of equality and equality to medical staff to make medical services more inclusive at a hypothetical hospital. We were all throwing out fantastic ideas until one of my fellow students, who if I’m not mistaken works in healthcare, made a very good point: time is scarce among medical staff.

This implies that the information provided to this group has to be as digested and contextualised as possible for them and the way in which support will be provided should be also very efficient. Equity and equality in this context must be delivered in a language that people in this sector can easily understand and, quite probably, with the support from people who work in this sector.

In another good example from the Winter School, one of the speakers, Professor Piet Van Avermaet from Ghent University, mentioned how useful religious leaders from certain Christian churches can be in engaging their communities to embrace education and healthcare. For me, this represents an example of how important it is to identify champions who mirror their communities and deliver messages in a way they are open and able to understand because they look up to them. They are more effective than we are in their communities, just as we might be more effective than them in our circles.

As opposed to this, I can provide you with another example of language and register leading to failure. I’ll soon go to my home country to spend Christmas, and during my time there I’ll have meetings with employer associations to discuss, among other things, the possibility of incorporating no-discrimination principles as part of the content of their members’ training opportunities. I’m doing this with five other people, and we’ve split the list of contacts, so that each one of us could arrange five meetings. Most of us have managed to arrange at least three meetings, but two of them couldn’t arrange any. We couldn’t figure out why. We all sent the same email, which was drafted in Spanish for Association Directors with similar socio-demographic educational and economic level characteristics. The list was also quite gender balanced. Finally, we managed to figure out what the issue was when we saw the email that was sent by those who couldn’t arrange any meetings. For those of you who are familiar with the Spanish language, you might know that it is a gendered language. Our colleagues decided to send their emails drafting it in what is now known as gender neutral text. They replaced all feminine “a” and masculine “o” with an “x”. I fully respect and support my colleagues. However, for the practical purposes of what we were trying to achieve, the email they sent was practically unintelligible and as a result, not only we didn’t get any meetings, but communication has stopped, since some of these associations think that we’re trying to infiltrate them to try to impose ideas that they don’t necessarily agree with.

Don’t get me wrong, my colleagues acted according to their principles. However, I believe that they forgot who we are trying to reach out to and even in poker, you cannot usually go full-in in the first move. Sometimes, we must move forward one step at the time and acknowledge that the qualitative change we want to make happens gradually and that hopefully, we’ll see it fully in place in our lifetime.

What’s in it for me?

In the very good Chilean film “No”, directed by Pablo Larrain, and where the main character is played by my fellow countryman Gael Garcia Bernal, a marketing and PR group of specialists explain to the Chilean military junta why implementing neoliberal policies in the country will be successful in the late 80s. “The idea” they say, “is that wealth and happiness will be attainable for everyone”. Then they stress, “but not for anyone, not for anyone”.

I believe that this notion is fully ingrained in the mindset of most people around the world, after decades of being bombarded with all sorts of messages that remind us on a daily basis, and through a variety of channels, that the dream is available and has something to offer for every one of us. A growing majority can’t reach it, though.

That’s why when we sometimes talk to even the most humble and vulnerable people about equality and equity in general terms, they resist. Believe me, I’ve seen this happening among the humblest people from the poorest countries. We simply can’t give away our hope that one day our life will look like what we see on the screens. Even if we’re presented with evidence that this is structurally impossible and that if we don’t start making changes inequality will hit us very soon in the face too.

That is why I think that we must make principles such as equality and equity as attractive and even sexy as possible. They must become part of the way in which we measure success and our ideals of happiness. The XXI century requires interaction among people from the most diverse characteristics and backgrounds. This is not only inevitable, but also necessary to solve the most important challenges that our world faces today. And to do this, knowledge, expertise, and resources will have to be shared.

We need to find the equivalent Christiano Ronaldos, Elon Musks and Taylor Swifts who would embrace these principles, live according to them, and then go around helping us to put them in the spotlight for genuine purposes. In parallel, we must also identify, support, and praise the people who will work at grassroots level in their correspondent communities and fields of work as equality and equity champions. In a nutshell, we need everyone, everywhere thinking about this.

And to achieve this objective it might be very useful to use the same techniques that have been successfully used by those who have a vested interest in perpetuating inequalities. We should use marketing strategies, PR, public diplomacy, bring on board opinion leaders, support advocates, and create selling points that are suitable for different groups of people. Finally, we must deliver these messages using the channels that our target groups use to consume information and speak in a language they accept and understand.

I’m not being naive, the task is enormous, complex, and resource- and time-consuming. However, every single contribution helps, and we can always start by spotting and making changes in our own actions, attitudes and even consumption habits. This way, perhaps one day the general agreement among most people around the world will be that fostering the principles of equality and equity are worth it because there’s something in them for each and every one of us. They make well-being and happiness attainable for everyone… and for anyone.

Thanks for reading these lines, which I’m sure are full of imperfection, but also with the best intention to contribute to this debate. I’d be happy to receive your comments and thoughts.

/Gabriel Ceballos

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