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Equity vs Equality. What is the real argument for feminism, to bring those marginalised at par with those always privileged?
A lot of us interested in issues of gender and feminism know that in theory, there are various schools of thought on feminism. First wave, new age, radical, classic….you name it, we have it! However, for those looking from a distance, the word “feminism” automatically refers to “demand for equality”.
A few day ago, over a conversation with a friend, the issue of women leaving the workforce to have children came up. He was cribbing about women asking for equality on all quarters and then also demanding flexibility as being unfair. The gist of his argument being, on one hand women want to be equal to men, and on the other hand, still use the “woman” card as per convenience.
The use of words like “equality” and “unfair” in the same sentence immediately led me to think about feminism and among the varied schools of thought, the use of language, and what is it that women are asking for? What do we mean when we say we want equality?
I cannot help but think that a lot of feminist arguments are either misguided, claiming to desire equality for women in situations where we would actually prefer equity, or misunderstood as demanding equality when we are, in fact, demanding equity.
I’ll take an example of the average dinner table. Parents and children, getting exactly the same amount of food would denote equality. But is that what happens? In practical terms, they should and will get portions according to their needs, age and appetite. This is where equity comes in. Equality denotes that everyone is at the same level, gets exactly the same share while equity represents fairness or what is referred to as equality of outcomes. Equality is mostly about quantity, whereas equity is always about quality.
I remember this popular activity that is taken up in gender trainings the world over, which I have often used in my training programs in schools over the years. I would ask every participant to take off their shoes and place them in the centre. I would then mix them up and hands back any two shoes at random to the participants. And then I would ask “Everything alright? You all have two shoes to wear?”
More often than not, you would hear the arguments that follow.
“These are wrong. They don’t fit!” or “This isn’t what I need. This doesn’t work for me.” Or “These are too big/small for me.” etc
But I am trying to be fair to everyone, right? I am dividing shoes equally so no one should complain. Where am I going wrong?
And more often than not, they would tell me, I don’t care if it is equal or not, it has to be fair.
So logically, we aren’t asking to be treated exactly like men, right? And why would we want to be treated as men in the first place? We are not men. Ignoring that would be ignoring plain facts and well, biology. Demanding recognition as mothers or homemakers, for instance, comes with a fundamental expectation of not being treated exactly the same way as a man would. However, we demand equity in how the world treats us, asking to be given the same rights as men have as human beings. And let me hasten to add, asking to look at our needs as women should not automatically mean being treated as less serious or less important.
And so I ask you to think about it. Especially in the Indian context, the way our society is structured and functions, what really are we, as women demanding? We are taking on more and more responsibility with passing years, and asking for respect for doing multiple jobs and doing them well. We are asking for what is fair and what is justified. It is equity that is desirable, not sameness.
In the end, it isn’t about having equal number of shoes, one each for the left and right foot. It is about having shoes that fit.
Guest Blogger Chandni is a development professional in the field of public health with a keen interest in gender and womens’ issues. She blogs at
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