The Complexity of Equality

Unpacking meaning is a dangerous thing, turning the apparently simple into the overtly complex. As we un-peel the layers of interpretation, we think we will, sooner or later, find the stone at the centre, whilst in fact what we often unearth is uncertainty, or yet more layers. There’s the notion of a thing, then there’s the reality of the thing itself, the latter being infinitely more complex than the first.


The notion of equality is clear: fairness, balance, opportunity. The reality, more nuanced, more complex, more open to interpretation.

Take this example: to be in the Police, you need to pass an annual fitness test. Should this be the same for men and women? On the one hand, clearly yet: the barrier must be set equally high for both. On the other, physiological differences make certain physical tasks harder for women than men, and vice versa, so a notion of equality set purely upon ‘same‘ would inherently be unfair. An easy example i realise, but here’s the point: from the first steps, we uncover the notion of equality through difference, so we remove the notion of equality being always about the same.

Take another area that can be challenging: affirmative action. We see candidate lists for political offices that are ‘women only‘. We see people being employed under affirmative action schemes on the basis of their gender or disability. Is that fair? Under one notion, yes, because it’s addressing an institutional imbalance. From another viewpoint, no, because as an individual, as a man, i may be disadvantaged. There is a sense here of difference between the population as a whole, and our strive for equality, and the individual, who may be disempowered as a result.

Although another way of looking at that is not that i am disempowered, but that i am suddenly reduced to membership of a population (men) who have suddenly got to face the historically female situation of reduced opportunity through gender alone.

Equality and Fairness

Take childcare: I’ve argued before that organisations should offer maternity and paternity equally to men and women, or both partners in a same sex marriage. But is that fair? Someone challenged my thinking recently to point out that, even if we assign equal leave, maybe a woman should have an affirmative weighting, because of the physical toll of childbirth. And maybe she had a point. Maybe there is equality after a point, but maybe we shouldn’t view the period of physical recuperation as part of this. If a woman has a cesarian section, maybe that should be accounted for separately?

And then the notion of equality itself. Are we trying to achieve everything being the same, the same opportunity for all? Or are we trying to redress imbalance? Should we positively drive equality, or should we consider it to be like waiting for ripples to settle, as something that will happen over time.

I read recently that at the current rate of movement, in the UK we will achieve pay equality in eighty years time. Eighty years? That seems like a long walk to me. But if we really believe in equality, shouldn’t we take action right now?

I’ve also become increasingly interested in what we mean by equality in a globally diverse culture: what do we do when our communities cross legal, ethical and moral boundaries?

I am committed to equality for all, irrespective of gender, sexual preference or identity, race or religion. But i would be hard pushed, it turns out, to find a common definition for what ‘equal‘ means. And then map this into the global workplace. Sit in an office in London and you will be treated differently from a legal and ethical viewpoint than you would if you sat in Riyadh, Bangalore or Moscow. We have to chose how to fight this fight: through engagement, through respect, through the export of our liberal values or through conversations to find commonality. It’s sometimes hard to strive for what we consider equal without trampling on someone else’s notion of what is fair to them.

I’m not comfortable introducing this ambiguity, but it’s become a feature of many conversations with people with whom i am entirely aligned; we are aligned, but would be hard pushed to explain exactly on what. Let alone how we deal with people in different cultures and with different values.

So equality: but in what sense?

I realise that my starting point was probably just that: a starting point. A platform to have the conversation. What is your view of equality, of what it means to be equal? How should we achieve this? Through affirmative action or through time alone? And what are the biggest barriers to equality?

These are not simple questions, but to be fair, to be equal, we have to consider them all.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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18 Responses to The Complexity of Equality

  1. Pingback: The Complexity of Equality | Elearning, learni...

  2. darlette says:

    Equality is implied intent as a right,inequality is real across the board world-wide inequality has damaged all of us as it hurts one.

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  18. gailradecki says:

    I am opposed to using the word “equal” in this context, simply because it is an ideal that isn’t attainable. Equal: “being the same in quantity, size, degree, or value; a person or thing considered to be the same as another in status or quality.” Because we are all different (and not just gender, race, etc, but all entirely unique) equality is ultimately unattainable in a society. I would argue that it is just as unfair to treat everyone equally as it is to treat them unequally. As you mention above, by simply being a white male you could be thrust into an unfair situation by efforts to force equality. No matter how you slice it, making the playing field exactly level will always put someone, some group, at a disadvantage.

    I believe the better word is “equity.” Equity: “justice according to natural law or right; specifically, freedom from bias or favoritism.” I know it’s mostly a legal term, but when we’re talking about society, employment, housing, educational opportunities, etc., we are actually in a space where legality plays a part. Equity takes into account the achievements or the desire to achieve in some, and the complete lack of concern for self-betterment in others. It allows us to aim for the level playing field, but recognizes that equality isn’t always possible and strives to at least make things fair.

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