Equality. Equity. Egality.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen takes on this equality versus equity meme. One appeared on by LinkedIn feed this morning and I wanted to comment. I thought I’d have posted on this before and wanted to link to it. If I did, I couldn’t find it, so here’s a fresh accounting. I searched Google for the original image and cobbled together my own versions, if only for visual continuity.

 L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Social Equality vs. Equity Meme

The meme renders something like this:

There are two frames being compared—equality and equity. In both, we see three people trying to view an event, but a barrier obstructs their view. The people are of different heights—tall, medium, and short—, metaphorically representing some intitial social status.

In one we see a representation of equality. In the spirit of equality, each person has one crate upon which to stand. This represents equality of condition. Each person is ensured to start the game on equal social footing. At a glance, it’s easy to discern that this intervention allows two of the people to see the event but leaves one of the three at a disadvantage and unable to view.

In the other, we see a representation of equity. In this frame, we see the same three people and a redistribution of the three crates. Equity is more in tune with equality of opportunity if not of outcomes. The taller person who had been standing on a crate had no need for it as he was tall enough to see over the barrier without it. The mid-size person, who could see the event with the crate but not without it, retained the crate. The shortest person was given the crate from the tallest person, now standing on a stack of two. The result is that each of the three people can now view the event unimpeded.

This comparison is such a nice conversation starter. It’s a hot button topic for some—and I’ll get to that presently. For me, it illustrates the concept of framing. There are several things left out of frame—at least one literally. In this meme, we are given a binary frame, but we can pull the shot back and there’s a third option: egality. This term has fallen out of favour in English, but the French retain it—égalité. In this frame, there is no need for crates, and the plank barrier is replaced by a chain-link fence.

Social Equality

Yet there’s the matter of metanarrative device. Why should there be any barrier? Why focus on these three in the foreground? Do the seated people represent the haves and those standing represent the have-nots? Might we interpret this as bourgeois versus proletariat with the focus on the struggle between the prols distracting from the broader issue? —being further distracted by the circus event? Have we lost the forest for the trees?

As it happens, people along the way have inserted their own social commentary through like-memes. I’ve similarly reconstructed these.

Societal Common Ground

In the beginning there are no crates. They are simply a device. At the start, only the tallest person can see over the barrier. At some point three crates appear ex nihilo and each person obtains one as depicted in the equality of condition frame, which leaves one of our participants better off and the other in no different of a social status, though a bit off the ground in the event of flash flooding. Small wins.

Past Burdens and Generational Wealth Transfer

Some shared the opinion that at least we all start on common ground, and yet others—likely Left- or Liberal-leaning—propose that some people start in a hole. Others might have noted that whilst some start out in a hole others start out with inherited boxes—or houses or networks—showcasing the transfer of generational wealth . Another might be able to view if there was a crate available. Given the negative starting place, the third would likely require three boxes to be on par to view, so even a redistribution of the three boxes would be insufficient.

For my first diversion, I’d like to spend a few moments defending a common response for the Right and Libertarians. Firstly, no one who supports this level-setting is suggesting that the advantaged be put into a hole like the disadvantaged. Nor is anyone asking for The Prince and the Pauper treatment where they trade places. This is a silly attempt at a strawman attack. Secondly, in a similar vein, no one is asking for the best off to relinquish everything and now be unable to see whilst the meek inherit the earth. As if that could ever happen.

Some people were overly optimistic—presumably representing the ‘if some is good, more must be better’ contingent. Why don’t we give everyone two boxes? Aside from the fact that only three are necessary for everyone to view the event, there was no mention where the original three crates came from let alone these additional three. I suppose they might have fashioned them from the fence. Who knows? But this leads us into contributions from the advocates of Capitalism.

Capitalism: Libertarian Vantage

Let’s chalk this up to the Right can’t meme syndrome. To this cohort, Capitalism is the solution. In fact, there will be more crates than one could possibly use. A rising tide rises all boats—and crates. None are left behind. In fact, this is what Capitalism is known for. Of course, this suffers from several cognitive biases: survivorship, selection and availability. But who’s really counting?

For this less fond of Capitalism, this illustrates excess and waste. We needed three crates, yet we produce over thirty. Moreover, these less-fond likely also notice a capital distribution challenge with Capitalism.

Capitalism: Democratic Vantage

The prevailing view by one cohort is that some of the excess crates ‘owned’ by the tallest person should be redistributed whilst the polar perspective holds that this person ‘earned’ those crates and is entitles to keep them. And why can’t that woman just hold her child so he can see? Don’t get me started.

Capitalism for Sale

You really do have to love Capitalists. The solution is always ‘you just have to pay for it. Duh’. Without going too far off track, many of these people—likely vastly most of them—can’t afford what they want, yet they stand by this mechanism.

Socialism Kills

Some people who despise Socialism have a rather macabre perspective on how socialism operates. To them, equality can only be acheived via some Harrison Bergeron mechanism—primarily because they choose not to distinguish between social and physical equality. And maybe they are simply sadistic and enjoy watching people suffer.

My personal favourite is the one for liberation.

Liberation is Liberating

We don’t need no fences. No barriers. No boundaries. Sit on the boxes. Fill them with food for the hungry.

But in the end, if all you are fighting for is free access to cricket matches and other circus events, you aren’t really liberated anyway. You are the slave that Rousseau wrote about, ‘Man is born free but everywhere is in chains’.


Disclaimer: For the record, I have been using the term, Capitalism idiomatically equivalent to a market economy because Americans just don’t want to separate them. I think they feel that if they can pretend they are the same, that criticising Capitalism would be tantamount to criticising market economics. This is wrong on so many levels, but, at least in North America, the terms are inextricable. The fact that Capitalism is a means of production, and the other is a distribution mechanism, people—from syndicalists and worker coöperatives to Mercantilists, tradesmen, and craft-workers—could choose to distribute goods and services through a market system without consequence. It’s not even worth expending a breath. Even English dictionaries have given up and conflated the concepts. Economic textbooks are the last bastion of academic sanity.

Diversity Frame

One if the biggest foci of postmodern philosophy is the metanarrative. Employment diversity is a place that the metanarratives go unquestioned by most. The most predominant aspect is the frame. Don’t accept it.

Inside this frame, some uncritically adopted narratives are as follows:

  • Work is good
  • Work builds character (proportionately to the effort exerted)
  • Work defines your value or worth as a human
  • Work signifies your place in society
  • Work is its own reward (except for monetary payment and recognition)
  • Value is defined by monetary achievement
  • Worth is defined by your place in an enterprise

And so on…

In this HBR article*, the frame has been established as a corporation and the diversity within this context. What this say by omission is that money and power is the measure of a meaningful existence. If only women were afforded a seat at this table—proportional to their population in society—, things will be even.

Women should start their own successful companies. Women should rise to the top of existing companies. Especially if they buy into the aforementioned narratives. Many women and men buy into this story lock, stock, and barrel (whatever that means), but only is you accept this as a frame is this relevant.

It’s easy to imagine a world where money is unnecessary, where labouring is unnecessary.

It’s easy to imagine a world where money is unnecessary, where labouring is unnecessary. Some have imagined a world without work, where people could instead pursue artistic endeavours, but this is just adopting a different set of narratives—like the person who exchanges drugs or alcohol for Jesus or some such. Out of the frying pan into the fire. This is the lie.

Interestingly, the HBR article makes these points:

  1. Quantify gender equity in terms of economic gains for the company.
  2. Hold leaders accountable for change by tying DEI metrics to performance reviews.
  3. Offer development opportunities to increase gender intelligence, empathy, and self-efficacy.
  4. Pull back the curtain on misperceived social norms.
  5. Establish cross-gender professional relationships.
  6. Frame, focus, and integrate interventions into core business outcomes and mission.

Notice that each of these operates from the perspective of the company. Granted, this is HBR, where the B is for Business, but still. Here’s the low down.

  1. Gender equity will at some point increase your bottom line.
  2. Create diversity metrics (and incentives) and tie them to performance review—presumably tied to the economic performance expected in bullet 1.
  3. Offer diversity training—notwithstanding the body of evidence and long history that diversity programmes are not only ineffective but sow seeds of discontent.
  4. Educate your executives and staff to the misconceptions—so long as you don’t question the deeper metanarratives.
  5. Essentially, the ask here is to establish male-female protégé-mentor relationships. Of course, this could be expanded to break binary gender stereotypes, too.
  6. Back to business, frame the frame. But to tell the truth, I don’t even know how to interpret and summarise the provided example. It seems this is an admixture of points 1 and 2, given metrics should ladder up to stated objectives and outcomes.

asking for this equity in diversity is a short-term fix

In any case, asking for this equity in diversity is a short-term fix, but it’s unimaginative and buys into the worldview of the patriarchy. There is no reason to accept this prima facie. As with the notion of Democracy, I’d be willing to argue that the system itself is the problem and that any tinkering within the system is limited by the system itself.


* Apologies in advance if HBR has a paywall. Typically, the first 3 articles are free, but if you are like me that exhausts on day one.