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Equality, equity and social justice
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Equality, equity and social justice

Using the right language is important to talk openly about social justice in informal STEM learning.
Social justice is a term most often used to encompass the whole space of concerns about inclusion and exclusion, and comes from theories of political philosophy. Both of the terms “equality” and “equity” come from broader theories of social justice. Equality, which is perhaps a more widely known term, is about treating people with fairness, and is usually described as treating people in the same way. Equality is about making sure people get the same opportunities, or, in the often used social justice metaphor, that everyone gets the same size piece of cake.
Equity builds on the idea of fairness, but instead of wanting to treat everyone in the same way, the idea of equity is about factoring people’s different needs into that idea of fairness. Some people won’t need free tickets to a science museum, and other people will. So to return to the cake metaphor, equity is about everyone getting the size of cake slice that they need, no cake at all, or a different cake altogether, which isn’t always the same as equality, where everyone gets the same size slice of cake. In this course, and in the Equity Compass, we understand social justice as incorporating aspects of both equity and equality, with an overarching focus on society-wide structural change.
The Compass, although it is called the Equity Compass, draws on ideas about equity and equality to think about what social justice looks like in informal STEM learning. In other words, ideas about equity and equality are not mutually exclusive. They can work together.

In this step, we explain two key concepts for thinking about inclusive practice: equity and equality. Both relate to the wider literature on social justice and to considerations of what fairness looks like.

Social justice looks at inclusion and exclusion, and comes from theories of political philosophy. Essentially, thinking about social justice is thinking about different ideas of fairness. Social justice work is often underpinned by a commitment to improving the situations for those who are excluded, minoritised and disadvantaged.

Understanding what terms like equality, equity and social justice mean isn’t always easy or straightforward. It can feel like the ‘right words to use’ change every week and, of course, concepts and terms related to social justice are always political, which means they do change. Sometimes it can feel confusing or quite risky to talk about these kinds of ideas.

In this video, Emily introduces two key concepts.

  • Equality is about treating people in the same way, making sure people get the same opportunities.
  • Equity is about factoring in people’s different needs and assets, understanding that people might need different opportunities and support.

The two images below, drawn by one of the young people we worked with, give a simplified illustration of equality and equity, showing three young people of different heights trying to look over a fence. While this way of representing the ideas of equity and equality is simplistic and, as a result, necessarily limited, we think it is a helpful starting point for understanding the ideas.

In the first image, which represents equality, young people stand on boxes of the same height – they get the same help for looking over the fence, which helps the tall boy on the right see over the fence but does not help the short girl on the left.

Three young people standing on boxes of the same height, trying to look over the fence. Next to them are two adults.

In the second image, which represents equity, young people stand on boxes of different heights. They get different help for looking over the fence, according to their needs. This helps all of them see over the fence.

Three young people standing on boxes of different heights, trying to look over the fence. Next to them are two adults.

We think it’s really important to have the language and understanding of key ideas in order to be able to talk about concerns related to social justice. Being able to talk about social justice is crucial for tackling issues of inequalities in informal STEM learning.

The Equity Compass is also based on the ideas of equality, equity, and social justice.

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Equity in Informal STEM Learning: Using the Equity Compass

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