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Words Matter: Equity and Fairness in Social Policy

By Laree Kiely

Words matter. They are loaded with meaning and sometimes baggage. Especially words like “equity” and “fairness.” These terms make up much of whom we are and what we do in our communities, in our country, in our world. When it comes to social issues and social policy they are bandied about as if we all certainly must share the same meaning. They are used to help people frame an issue in order to construct programs, rules, policies, laws. Sometimes they are used for good– to help people think through all stakeholders and their needs and values. Sometimes they are used like a two-by-four to bully people by guilt-tripping them into agreement because they will look unethical and uncaring if they don’t. These are enormously complicated issues that demand rational rather than emotional tools. They demand rigor.

fairnessIn addition, some fields and perspectives have justified themselves by hijacking certain words. “Fairness” and “equity” are “nice” words. But “owning” nice words does not necessarily make us nice. It can sometimes make us righteous. And righteousness is rarely a compelling reason for people to change their minds. Thinking we are right and opposing perspectives are wrong has never been an effective tool for ending up with mutually agreeable outcomes. All we do is end up preaching to the choir (people who already agree with us). What about everybody else? In the 21st century, we need to get beyond this tribal mentality and move toward a much larger community– one that allows for disagreement and the co-creation of a new future that is more inclusive of differing opinions.

The concepts of fairness and equity come up frequently in the work of dispute resolution. I remember when my children were little, we would frequently hear the cry “That’s not fair!!” Of course, what that meant in simple terms is “Things aren’t going my way.” Some very smart and sophisticated grown-ups also struggle with the term “fair.” It’s pervasive and contentious and also very abstract. In addition, it is simultaneously emotion-laden and also means nothing until we have an operational definition we can share.

We have a particular example we like to use to point out that the word “fair” does not mean the same thing to all people. The example is a group of four friends who started a tech business together. They all put in the same amount of time and money. Of the four:

  • Bob, who is a single male with no children, came up with the idea.
  • Sue, who is married with 4 children and her husband also works, created the prototype of the idea.
  • Mary, who is a single mother of four with chronic health issues and enormous expenses, was the operations officer and ran the company.
  • Tom, who is a newly-wed– just starting out whose wife is a student, created the market to sell to and did all of the sales. 

Their business became a raging success. Then they got an offer they could not refuse for many millions of dollars. Unfortunately they did not have a pre-nuptial agreement and now they have to decide how to divide the profits. As an exercise, we have people take on the roles of these four people and have them argue for how they think the money should be split. Inevitably our individual beliefs in fairness emerge and they are often quite different.

Fairness as Equality: The “equality” argument says simply that because there are four of us, we each take a fourth.

Fairness as Equity: The “equity” argument says we take the portion that exemplifies the value of what we individually put in. In some cases, the folks agree that all parties were equally valuable, so they all take a fourth. Sometimes, however they get into an argument about bringing more value than the others. Bob says they wouldn’t have a company if he hadn’t had the idea. Sue says without the prototype, they would be nowhere. Mary says the place would have unraveled is she had not kept it running. Tom says he deserves more than a fourth because without him, they would not have made any money.

Fairness as Need: The third argument is based on “need.” In this case people argue in favor of Mary believing that she has the greatest need.

There isn’t a right answer, but it clearly points out the extreme variations in defining “fair” and the need in the front end for clear definitions, not abstract, loaded terms.

Academics know this. We are not allowed to do research or publish or even have an opinion without operational definitions and having read everything there is on a topic. It may make our publications a bit laborious, but it does ensure thoroughness and clarity. It’s why you’ll never hear an academic saying “research says….” A great example is Braveman and Gruskin’s 2003 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health article titled “Defining Equity in Health.” Here they define equity and fairness in social policy related to the work being done on social determinants of health. They discuss the varying historic definitions. They assert one common definition to work with. They define every word and concept.  “…equity in health can be defined as the absence of systematic disparities in health between social groups who have different levels of underlying social advantage/disadvantage–that is different positions in a social hierarchy.” “Health represents both physical and mental well-being, not just the absence of disease.” “Underlying social advantage or disadvantage refers to wealth, power, and/or prestige–that is, the attributes that define how people are grouped in social hierarchies.” And they go on to refine these definitions. When they ask “Do the definitions really matter?” they respond with the following: “…clarity is required to determine when different definitions represent substantially different paradigms and the implications of adopting these different paradigms in particular contexts.”

We don’t have to agree on their definitions, but we do have to know what they are. I strongly recommend you read this article and use it as a model for going forward in any “fairness and equity” debate. When we read their work, we have no confusion about what they mean when they use a word. It doesn’t end the debate, but it certainly clarifies it and makes it more meaningful and useful.

We have facilitated many group processes where people want to waste time arguing about a word. What is necessary is shared agreement on the definition, not the word. The first thing we know about any policy, process, or decision going forward is that we must have the terms defined operationally (observably and measurably), rules must be negotiated before the game is started and these steps get us closer to the holy grail of “common ground.”

Words matter. If you still have doubt, I leave you with Lewis Carroll: “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘”The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
Through the Looking Glass

Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group.  Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years.  In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto).  The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact.  Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at:  [email protected].


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