Equity is a frequently misunderstood term. While in one context equity can refer to the value of a share in an entity like a business, the term equity also refers - more broadly - to fairness and justice in society. Used in this way, the definition of equity overlaps with another, more familiar term: equality. Equality, according to the dictionary definition, refers to a state in which all people are treated equally, and receive the same level of support.
The difference between equality and equity is a subtle one. Both terms imply a sense of fairness, but are deployed in a different way. While equality refers to the notion of equal levels of help to all members of society, equity seems to entail proportional equality, or to put it another way, equality according to need.
This is an important distinction to make, as it cuts to the heart of an ongoing debate which is not just about whether or not society should be equal, but the way in which it should be made more equal.
Unconscious hiring bias exist
I’m in my early twenties. People my age consider equity and equality to be broadly good things, but there is very little consensus about how these ideals should be put into practice. Though equality of opportunity exists to a great extent under the law, equity does not. The barriers to equity are many and various, and consist of underlying factors that determine someone’s place in society, and by extension, the perception other people have of them. Research from Deloitte has shown that hiring bias is rife in the world of business. Applicants are discriminated against on the grounds of their age, race, and sex even before they apply for a job, with 55% of employees reporting having witnessed or experienced discrimination on one or more of these grounds. Moreover, experts say that unconscious hiring bias exists because of the names of applicants on their CVs. If someone has a name that is perceived as somehow ‘different’, they may be less likely to be considered in the same way as other applicants. Josh Bersin suggests a number of techniques with which employers can counteract these kinds of bias, such as by using analytical software packages in the candidate and employee assessment process which are specifically designed to increase diversity. These types of software are capable of flagging up gendered language in job descriptions and replacing it with more neutral alternatives that will appeal to a broader pool of applicants.
But even before an individual reaches the age at which they apply for a job, the quality of their upbringing and education determines their course in life. If one is born into a wealthy, affluent upbringing, then one’s parents might be financially capable of sending their child to a private school. It is no surprise that being sent to a private school is an advantage in life. Privately schooled children benefit from higher-quality teaching with smaller class sizes, a wider range of extracurricular activities, and just as importantly, they benefit from the prestige that accompanies having been privately schooled. This is reflected starkly in the data:
Although only 6% of the UK’s schoolchildren are sent to private schools, yet privately schooled people dominate the top income brackets.
Education to play a role in fostering a new equitable society
They are also massively overrepresented in positions of power, with a staggering 74% of judges being privately schooled, along with 32% of MPs. And this makes perfect sense, given that on average, privately schooled children outperform their state-educated counterparts at exams and university admissions. This is to say nothing of the preponderance of government ministers and prime ministers (including Boris Johnson) who have been privately schooled. The situation is similarly unequal in the United States, but in other countries like India, as many as 50% of schoolchildren are enrolled in private education, largely because of the insufficiency of the state schooling system.
Some might argue that so long as the two-tier education system persists, so will the inequality in society. Perhaps this may be the case, but in the age of technology, little is certain. It may be possible that the gap might be closed, and that society might become truly equitable. This might be accomplished by levelling the playing field in terms of the quality and delivery of education. By understanding where and why inequality occurs, the state could set about providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds with more assistance and educational attention, to account for the gap in attainment. But greater access to education for individuals and expanding the delivery of education is only one possible measure that may help. What may also usher in a new, equitable society might be tailoring education itself at the point of delivery in such a way as to optimize it for disadvantaged groups.
Informal personalized learning to pave the way to equity in the future of work
But it is not enough to encourage equity in education only: steps should be taken to ensure that equity is established in the labour market as well. How might this happen in the future? We might speculate that lifelong learning - which is increasingly important in today’s professional world - might yield the answer. If employees are able to take control of their careers by improving their skills through education that is specific to their individual needs, we might begin to see a rapid improvement in equity in the labour market. The barriers that stand in the way of disadvantaged people in the workplace could largely be removed if they could take their professional development into their own hands through personalized learning. While equity is likely some way off, there are promising signs that it might be on its way. Indeed, the computer scientist Rediet Abebe has already begun writing algorithms designed to eliminate inequality at the point of education delivery, as well as to address factors which cause people to descend into poverty. This kind of work is only just beginning, but there will certainly be more to come.
Illustration from the Interaction Institute for Social Change