Backgrounder: Equity

By Paisley McHaffie, Student, Simon Fraser University

Equity is about power – its distribution, use, and impact. Power is exercised in many ways – directly and indirectly by individuals, groups, and institutions. Equity is about access to knowledge and resources: financial, physical, environmental, and social; the tools used to exercise power: laws, regulations, policies, and practices; and governance: the ways in which decisions are made, by whom and for whom. The way in which power is distributed reflects the values of those exercising it. In most western, liberal democracies, such as Canada, this value base includes the notion of fairness – of equal access to basic human rights and social justice. But what happens when some values collide with others? When the desire for equality comes up against a capitalist economic model, or when a belief in individual rights comes up against the collective good? And most significantly, what happens when there is a discrepancy between the stated intentions of those exercising power and their effect or impact on others?

Most discussions today are not about equality but about equity, which includes a concern for social justice. The following illustration shows the difference in meaning between the two concepts, and the impact of systemic barriers.

Equity begins with an acknowledgement that our social, political, and economic institutions have been “built with inequality as an inherent component of their design.” It is not always easy to tease out how legacies of colonialism, racism, discrimination, stereotyping, and unfair employment practices (to name a few) affect diverse groups of people differently. However, a shift in policy making and planning is moving away from formal equality (the strictly equal treatment of individuals) toward a focus on equity, which recognizes that diverse groups of people may require not only equal, but different treatment in order to access the same advantages that others have.

Differences based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, indigeneity, immigration status, and ability are just some of the factors that affect a person’s ability to benefit from formal equality under the law, or from equality of opportunity. This concept of intersectionality is elaborated elsewhere in this workbook.

Gender equity is currently one of the focal areas of the City and will serve as the main example of policy approaches for the purpose of this introduction. The Women’s Equity Strategy 2018-2028 is a ten-year plan that outlines specific goals and targets toward achieving a more equitable city for all women and self-identified women.


  • Women continue to be economically disadvantaged relative to men. Even for the same occupation, women still earn .87 cents to each dollar a man earns.
  • The “motherhood penalty” involves the cumulative effects of extended parental leaves, unpaid care labour, lack of affordable childcare options, and precarious employment. These structural inequalities limit women’s full economic participation over the course of her lifetime.
  • We know that women’s economic disadvantage places them at increased risk of violence and exploitation. Intimate partner and gender-based violence are a persistent issue that has deep and long-lasting effects. More support services are needed for women fleeing intimate partner violence.
  • Many women do not feel safe in the city. Only 57% of women compared to 73% of men said they felt safe walking after dark. Senior and younger women reported feeling the most unsafe.
  • Inequality is experienced differently and more acutely for women with intersecting oppressions, such as Indigenous women who are at a greater risk for violence than non-Indigenous women, have higher rates of unemployment, and are twice as likely to head lone-parent families.

The City of Vancouver’s Women’s Equity Strategy 2018-2028, as well as the federal government’ s Gender Based Analysis + (GBA+) are tools that apply an intersectional lens to all policy and at all levels of government. Inherent in their design is the objective of looking at the differential impact of policy on individuals and groups that vary across race, class, sex, gender, ability, and other vectors of identity. The adoption of the Women’s Equity Strategy and GBA+ at the level of Council and senior management in the City of Vancouver is a milestone to ensuring that urban policies are equitable. The process undertaken with the Women’s Advisory Council to engage women and their organizations in codesigning the strategy was positive. A similar process is needed to ensure the implementation phase is also an inclusive process. Experience shows that it is necessary to document the impact of such commitments – both intended and unintended and make adjustments in implementation in light of ongoing monitoring.

Issues and Opportunities

The five roundtable groups under the theme of Equity at this Sum mit focused on the impact of colonization, discrimination, and poverty and initiatives that are being undertaken by many groups, organizations, and researchers in the city to empower communities and youth.

Retrieved from Advancing Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Municipalities (