What Is Social Equity?

A blog post by Professor Bernadette McSherry, Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute

This piece by Professor Bernadette McSherry, Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Institute (2013-2021), was first published in 2013 shortly after Bernadette moved to the University of Melbourne to take up her new role.


“Social Equity” sounds like an important and worthwhile concept, but it can mean very different things to different people. In raising the term amongst a totally non-random sample of friends and acquaintances, a common reaction went something like: “Doesn’t it have something to do with finances?” or “Isn’t it something to do with the distribution of resources?” Those with mortgages may have a vague notion of equity being the difference between what a property is worth and how much is owed on it and thus think social equity must have something to do with finances or property. In addition, people may relate equity to taxation and government decisions as to where our tax dollars go.

Social equity certainly has a policy and financial aspect to it, but it goes further than that – there are calls for equity in education and health, for example. What about a definition of social equity as meaning treating people equally? The problem here is that there is a slight difference between “equity” and “equality”. As Mary Guy and Sean McCandless (2012: 5) explain:

To be clear, “equity” and “equality” are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings.  The difference is one of nuance: while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness.

Treating people exactly the same can lead to unequal results. For example, in the oft quoted words of Anatole France from The Red Lily (1894), “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Treating people in an equitable way requires taking into account their individual needs.

Part of the problem in trying to define the concept of social equity is that it reflects ideas of “fairness” and “justness” which have a normative component in that they are based on moral values or considerations.  What one person thinks is fair may differ markedly from what another thinks is fair. Those working in different disciplines may also have different conceptions of the term. Philosophers such as John Rawls have explored how an equitable society may be brought about through notions of distributive justice and legal theorists have looked at equitable decision-making in terms of procedural fairness.

The concept of social equity has also developed in the context of theories of public administration. In 1968, a number of public administration scholars including H. George Frederickson, decided at a conference held in Minnowbrook, New York, to reject the notion that public administration was value neutral. The members of what is now known as the “New Public Administration” movement argued that public administration should reflect social values, including social equity. In 2000, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) offered the following definition for social equity in public administration:

The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; and the fair and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy.

In the medical context, Paula Braveman and Sofia Guskin (2003: 254) have defined equity in health as “the absence of systematic disparities in health (or in the major social determinants of health) between social groups who have different levels of underlying social advantage/disadvantage”. In the field of education, Chapter 3 of the Final Report of the Federal Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling (usually referred to as the Gonski Report after the Expert Panel’s Chair) is entitled “Equity and Disadvantage”. The Report (2011: 105) defines “equity in schooling as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. Equity in this sense does not mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes. Rather, it means that all students must have access to an acceptable international standard of education, regardless of where they live or the school they attend”.

The concept of social equity also plays a role in areas such as regional planning, with Sharon Harwood, Bruce Prideaux and Doris Schmallegger (2011: 15) equating the concept with “the reduction in inter and intra regional differences in per capita income and employment” [references omitted] as well as in recent environmental research with sociologists including Daniel Faber exploring the effects of high pollution on disadvantaged communities.

Environmental equity is another field of research examining why certain communities experience an unfair share of harmful effects from pollution, climate change and/or environmental hazards and what can be done to alleviate this.

Perhaps, like many concepts, social equity is incapable of being clearly defined. However, it does provide a starting point for researchers from different disciplines to examine what they perceive as unjust or unfair social practices and to come up with options to redress them.