Is it Fair or is it Equal?

Sunjay says: Is it Fair or is it Equal?

Over the years I’ve had this discussion with many people in many different forms. There is a large distinction between being treated fairly and being treated equally. Personally, I would always rather be treated fairly. In fact, I don’t think being treated equal is fair (try and get your head around that one!).

So what’s the difference? Being treated equal means everyone always gets the same. If there are eight cookies and four members of the family, each person should get two cookies, right? That's equal. Each person gets an equal number of cookies. But here’s my question: is that fair? Sometimes it may be – but very often it is not.

The reason that it might not be fair is because we don’t account for the differences of the individuals. Let’s go a little deeper with the cookie analogy. What if the four people in the family were a mom, a dad, a brother and a sister. And let’s suppose the sister is only three months old. Is it really fair to give her two cookies? Keep in mind, most three months old babies don’t eat solid food – they don’t even have teeth for that matter. Those two cookies will not be eaten by the three month old. So, is it fair to have two cookies go to waste?

Or what if the brother has been acting out, why should he be rewarded with cookies for his poor behavior? Or if the father really, really, really loves cookies and is willing to trade his ice-cream (which happens to be mom’s favorite) for the two cookies?

When we account for the difference of each person we realize that being fair is not always the same as being equal.

Here's another example. If you always show up on time for class and you are late one day – should you be treated the same (or equal) for showing up late on that day as the person in the class who always shows up late? You both did the same thing, showed up late on a particular day. Who you are, your background and your behavior make you unique and can make it unfair to be treated equally.

Don’t strive for equality, strive for something better - strive for fairness.

The way it was best explained to me once was if you are playing a card game that requires five cards, the fair way to do it would be to give each person five cards from the same deck. The equal way to do it would be to give everyone exactly the same five cards – and that makes for a pretty boring game.

So what do you do if you don’t like the five unique cards that you were dealt? That’s easy, you deal with it or change the game!


By Sunjay Nath

Sunjay travels the world sharing insights on leadership. He is the author of several books including the best seller, The ABCs of Student Leadership and a frequent speaker at our Leadership Summits. To order his book or learn how to have him as a guest speaker, please visit