[Letter] ‘Equity is incompatible with equality’

In the prelude to International Women’s Day, the term equity made its debut at TU Delft. According to student Dennis Lappee this is hazardous.

Vice rector Rob Mudde at the celebration of International Women’s Day 2023 in the aula. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

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The word equity has started to show up in recent TU Delft correspondence around International Women’s Day, such as in the hashtag EmbraceEquity and a statement from Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde. To most people, equity sounds synonymous with equality, but they are not the same. I would like to point out the hazards of replacing equality with equity, specifically in relation to the male-female ratio in technical universities. I will first go over some differences between men and women and then argue why we should stick with gender equality, instead of gender equity.

By equality people generally mean that individuals should have equal access to opportunities, regardless of irrelevant characteristics like their sex, sexuality, or race. Numerus fixus degrees, for example, formally maintain equality in the selection procedure since entry is based on tests and does not consider gender or ethnicity.

Equal outcomes

Equity is the idea that advantages and disadvantages are unequally distributed among groups of people, and that opportunity should therefore also be differentially allocated as compensation. Any equal treatment that ignores identity characteristics, such as those mentioned above, is deemed unfair. Equity assumes that equal opportunity will lead to equal outcomes. With this assumption in place, outcomes directly reflect if opportunities are equal. If equal outcomes are not achieved, it can be inferred that opportunities are also not equal.

This sort of outcome-based thinking can be recognised in initiatives like the one in 2019 at the Eindhoven University of Technology where scientific positions were only available to women for the first six months. The goal of this initiative was to increase the female scientific staff, which Eindhoven wants to raise to 30% by 2024. TU Delft, in turn, wants to get to a 25% share of female full professors by 2025.

Imbalance in STEM

One of the arguments for such initiatives is girls’ and boys’ school performance in subjects related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As girls’ and boys’ high school science and maths performance do not differ very much, why are girls going into STEM at such a lower rate, if not for social factors like societal expectations or the lack of role models? One answer to this is the observation [1] that when girls do well in maths and science, they are way more likely to also read well. This is not the case for boys. When boys do well in science and maths, they are less likely to also be good at reading [2]. It follows then that girls that do well in science and maths often have relatively more educational options than similar boys. If we assume that people choose their educational path based on their strengths this can partly explain the male-female gap in STEM.

Another significant difference between men and women is that, on average, men tend to be more things-oriented than women [3], and women tend to be more people-oriented than men. Another unsurprising revelation [4] is that the average STEM graduate is way more interested in things than in people. It then follows that most of these people happen to be men, thus causing an imbalance in STEM gender inflow.

Most competent group of professionals

Gender equity replacing gender equality is founded on the idea that if men and women are treated equally, the differences would disappear. In this perspective, gender is simply a social construction: society moulds men and women into gender roles. Gender differences are thus a result of socialisation rather than inherent.

This idea is false. If gender differences are a consequence of socialisation, then increased equality should produce increased equity. Instead, the opposite happens. Countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Norway, the countries which have equalised opportunities between the sexes the most, have seen the differences between men and women grow as a consequence, not shrink [5]. On the other hand, countries like the UAE, Tunisia, and Algeria that score low on gender equality have more women in STEM [6]. Gender equality thus yields gender inequity.

Since the pool of women interested in STEM is seriously smaller than the pool of men, it is statistically impossible to promote the best researchers and engineers equitably. By adopting equity as a value, TU Delft is putting its ability to produce the most competent group of professionals, which is its primary responsibility, at risk. Equity is incompatible with equality; we shouldn’t pretend it’s not.

Dennis Lappee is a third year aerospace engineering student at the TU Delft, and a second year philosophy student at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In his free time he likes to read books and complete the daily Wordle. You can contact him trough e-mail.



[1] Stoet, G., & Geary, D. C. (2018). The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychological Science, 29(4), 581–593. https://doi-org.tudelft.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0956797617741719

[2] Idem.

[3] Su R, Rounds J, Armstrong PI. Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychol Bull. 2009 Nov;135(6):859-884. doi: 10.1037/a0017364. PMID: 19883140.

[4] Su, R., & Rounds, J. (2015). All STEM fields are not created equal: People and things interests explain gender disparities across STEM fields. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 189.

[5] Stoet, G., & Geary, D. C. (2018). The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychological Science, 29(4), 581–593. https://doi-org.tudelft.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0956797617741719

[6] Idem.

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