‘Equity’ Unpacked

Pam Sornson, JD

The pursuit of ‘equity’ is driving many social reform initiatives across all sectors of Californian society. The definition of ‘equity,’ however, may vary based on the issues being addressed and the responses to those concerns. On Tuesday, November 9th, from 9:00 am to 11:30 am, the Economic and Workforce Development department (EWD) at Pasadena City College (PCC) is hosting its third annual “Future of Work” Conference to discuss the contextual meaning of ‘equity,’ and will provide examples of how some entities have pivoted their organizations to more fully embrace it. Attendees will come away better informed about this critical social concept and inspired to do their part to improve those equity-challenged aspects of their own communities. 


‘Equity’ Defined

The dictionary defines ‘equity’ as ‘the quality of being fair or impartial’ and extends that definition to include ‘chancery:’ ‘the application of the dictates of conscience or the principles of natural justice to the settlement of controversies.’ It also adds a context to the word: ‘equity’ also means ‘a legally valid right or claim.’ 

A broader understanding of the concept is achieved by combining those concepts into one sentence: ‘Equity’ means applying fair and impartial principles of natural justice to the settlement of legally valid claims and controversies.’ And as concise as that sentence is, it still doesn’t encompass the depth and breadth of ‘equity’ issues that are currently disrupting the community. While those are many and disparate, thought leaders can loosely group them into one of three overarching themes, each of which focuses on a particular circumstance: Racial equity, gender equity, and compensation equity.  

(Side note: ‘Equity’ is not the same as ‘equality.’ ‘Equality’ indicates that all groups receive the same resources. ‘Equity’ allocates resources according to individual needs to facilitate an equal outcome for all.) 


Racial Equity

Pursuing racial equity means providing (primarily) people of color with the resources they need to achieve the same outcomes as their white neighbors and colleagues. The process of pursuing racial equity approaches the issue from two sides: 

Adding in resources to make up for gaps that developed over time (either intentionally or inadvertently), and

Removing unnecessary barriers to growth that were put in place (intentionally or inadvertently) over time. 

In many, if not most, cases, both sides evolved through the application of institutional policies and practices that favored one color of people over the other(s). The consequences of maintaining these destructive policies and practices are many, from reducing the life expectancy of people of color to the loss of vast economic opportunities when valuable skills and talents go undiscovered. Addressing racial inequities requires intentional action on both sides of this equation.


Gender Equity    

Pursuing gender equity means recognizing that there are significant and fundamental differences between women and men. Like racial equity, it also requires intentional action to compensate for the social and historical disadvantages that impede a woman’s opportunity to achieve the same outcomes as a man.

Gender inequity evolved over eons, as women and men developed ‘standard’ practices and expectations about living and working together. In almost all global societies, male dominance is accepted as the norm, based on socially accepted (but not scientifically accurate) beliefs that men are naturally more intelligent and more capable than women, which makes them also more ‘valuable.’   

Studies reveal, however, that when given the same resources and opportunities as men, women do just as well, and in some cases, better than their male counterparts. Evidence of this can be seen in how the COVID-19 pandemic has been managed; overall, female-led countries fared better than male-led countries, but not because their leaders were female. Instead, those countries that placed a high value on women in general were more likely to do better during a crisis, including the COVID-19 situation. Pursuing gender equity, then, will require an erosion of the ‘male dominance’ default position and an expansion of respect for female competencies and capacities.     

Adding a wrinkle to the concept is today’s recognition that ‘gender’ itself is a fluid concept. ‘Gender fluidity‘ refers to people who identify themselves as both male and female, and they express themselves accordingly. ‘Gender identity’ is different, too, from ‘sexual’ identity, which defines the preferred sex of the person and the sex of the people who attract them. These terms are significant from an ‘equity’ perspective because both are often used as a justification for bias and prejudice. 


Compensation Equity

The most significant and damaging impact of both racial and gender inequities is the compensation inequity that typically results from those practices. 

Racially-based compensation inequities are most glaringly revealed by the practice of slavery, which provided much of the labor needed to build the new country. In the subsequent 245 years, people of color have struggled to gain equal pay for equal work, and many legitimately point to unequal access to education as just one barrier. A recent study shows that Blacks, overall, fare worse than Asians and White people and only slightly better than the Latinx community in terms of pay equities. 

Women, too, continue to struggle to find equal compensation footing compared to their male colleagues. A LinkedIn study indicates that, despite legal mandates in place to eliminate the problem, in 2021, women earn only $.82 to every $1.00 earned by men. 

This discussion underscores the significance of inequity in today’s society, where people are marginalized for their gender, sexual preference, skin color, and other attributes that have nothing to do with their talents, skills, or value to their community. Consequently, the evolving conversation about ‘equity’ – defining it, addressing it, and achieving it – is more complex than many people recognize and more critical than ever to the community as it seeks new footings in the post-COVID economy. 

PCC’s upcoming Future of Work Conference offers an excellent opportunity to hear how some community leaders are facing the inequities they see in their organizations and discover new strategies to address the challenge in your organization. Please join us.   

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