Just because something is equal does not mean it is equitable in its intent, its impact, or its net effect. In fact, totally equal treatment of unequal people is generally inequitable. This very real state of disequilibrium between equality and equity has been part of the human condition since the beginning of time.
By simple definition, the words equal and equitable may appear similar. Because they do, they are often used interchangeably, as though they are synonyms. Equal treatment refers to sameness. It is characterized by a similar amount, a set value, or some other measurable resource of opportunity afforded in equal measure. Equitable, on the other hand, refers to treatment based on dissimilar needs and individual circumstances. Individual contexts and conditions become the critical variables in determining services, resources, and opportunities to be afforded. Obviously, they are not synonymous terms that can be used interchangeably. And just as clearly, the differences between the unique concepts and appreciations that guide each are enormous.
This is unfortunate, because there is a very profound and critical difference. When leaders either fail or refuse to recognize that difference, their view of those they serve and how they can best serve all is seriously impaired. Such leaders are compromised by their lack of awareness of the individual circumstances, needs, and strengths of those they serve. As a result, the organization suffers because equity has been lost in their efforts to treat everyone the same.
Variations on the theme, “Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people,” are credited to numerous individuals. Among the most notable are Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson. Although offered at times when commonly held notions regarding human equality were dramatically different than they are today, a recognition of the distinct differences between equal and equitable treatment are nonetheless clear. As thinking and action regarding equal and equitable treatment for all continues to evolve, an appreciation for their critical difference is essential.
Thoughtful, empathetic, and situationally-aware leaders recognize, appreciate, and seek to provide equitable treatment for everyone they serve.