Guest Column with Professor Bernadette McSherry

April 13 / 107

Professor Bernadette McSherry, Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.
Professor Bernadette McSherry, Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.

‘Social Equity’ sounds like an important and worthwhile concept, but it can mean very different things to different people. Part of the problem in trying to define this concept is that it reflects ideas of ‘fairness’ and ‘justness’ which are based on moral values and considerations.  What one person thinks is fair may differ markedly from what another thinks is fair.

The Melbourne Social Equity Institute is the sixth and newest research institute established to provide support for researchers from different disciplines across the University to get together to explore complex issues. The advantage of having an institute dedicated to examining broad issues of “social equity” is that it encourages researchers to reflect on what the term means in their own and other disciplines in order to develop and assess policies and programmes that can be put in place to help make societies fairer and more just.

The concept of social equity goes beyond the notion of treating people in exactly the same way.  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.

So what does social equity mean in different contexts? “New public administration” scholars have argued for the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services. 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. In the medical context,  “health equity” has been defined as the absence of systematic disparities in health between social groups and in the education context, the Gonski Report has defined “equity in schooling as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions”.

The concept of social equity plays a role in other disciplines such as regional planning, with social equity being equated with reductions in income and employment disparity according to place. The concept is also informing recent environmental research with scholars exploring, for example, the effects of high pollution on disadvantaged communities.

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.

The Melbourne Social Equity Institute has already provided seed funding for several interdisciplinary research projects across the University and has just advertised four Strategic Australian Postgraduate Awards related to some of these projects. Further information about the Institute, its research themes and current projects is available at

Professor Bernadette McSherry is the Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.

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