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What does equal opportunity mean? – Definition, Examples & Status Quo

Equal opportunity is often part of the public debate, especially when political elections are approaching, the term can be heard everywhere. In this article, we investigate the meaning behind the phrase, what crucial role education plays in it and the current state of equal opportunities in Germany is.

    1. Equal opportunity definition
    2. Equal opportunity vs. equity – what is the difference?
    3. Equal opportunity in education
    4. Current situation in Germany
    5. Strategies for more equal opportunity
    6. How you can get involved

Equal opportunity definition

The term equal opportunity describes an ideal state in society in which all people are able to achieve maximum success with their individual performance. This means that where there is competition between several people, everyone should have the same starting conditions. Competitive situations exist in areas such as education, health, housing and generally in the distribution of material and financial resources.

According to equal opportunity, factors such as origin, gender, skin color and religious affiliation should have no positive or negative influence on a person’s chances of success. This has been regulated by law since 2006, namely in the General Equal Treatment Act (more here). Among other things, the law states that no one may be discriminated against on the basis of their origin when looking for a place to live and that the application process for a job must be designed to be non-discriminatory.

Equal opportunity vs. equity – what is the difference?

Menschen unterschiedlicher Hautfarben, Geschlechter, körperlicher Fähigkeiten stehen in einer Schlange
Source: Canva
Where do the terms originate?

In the 1960s, the word equal opportunity was first used in connection with the education crisis of the time, after Germany showed clear deficits compared to neighboring countries.. At that time, only 15% of the children in a given year attended a Gymnasium. Children from working-class households, children living in the countryside and women and girls in general had little access to higher education (more here). There was a call for a reformation of the education system, with equal educational opportunities for all.

But the concept of equal opportunity was soon criticized and labeled as “socialist egalitarianism” in politics. As a result, the CDU/CSU promoted the phrase equity of opportunity as an alternative term in which not “everyone should be given the same chance, but everyone should be given their chance,” according to the then CDU Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs Bernhard Vogel in 1974. You can read more about the history of the terms here.

How do they differ?

Equal opportunity means that resources must be distributed equally to everyone, regardless of individual background, so that everyone has the same starting chances and thus opportunities for advancement. In the case of equity, on the other hand, resources are distributed only to those who need them. This is to create a balance and fair conditions for all. Although the terms equal opportunity and equity have different meanings, they are now often used as synonyms. In this paper, we use the term equal opportunity because it is more commonly used.

Equal opportunities in education 

Schüler*innen im Unterricht
Source: Canva

Education plays a central role in a person’s future standard of living, income, and social status, and continues to influence quality of life long after school ends. This is why there is the greatest need for action here, as studies make it clear that inequalities begin very early.

Current school system reinforces inequalities

A widely known fact is that children’s education is strongly dependent on that of their parents. Data from the IFO study (read here) show that only about 21% of children with two parents without a high school diploma and a net household income of less than 2600 euros per month attend a high school. In contrast, 80% of children of parents who both have high school diplomas and have a combined net income of more than 5500 euros attend Gymnasium.

According to education researcher Klaus Klemm, the current school system contributes greatly to less equality of opportunity: “Germany’s daycare centers and schools do not reduce the division of society into winners and losers, but rather solidify it.”

Inequality begins even before school enrollment
Source: DGB

In his analysis commissioned by the German Federation of Trade Unions (read here), Klemm also notes that among children under the age of three whose parents have a secondary school diploma, only 16% have a place in a daycare center. This compares to more than 38% in families where the highest qualification is a university qualification. This then contributes to the fact that the children’s level of knowledge varies even before they start school and due to a frequent lack of support, continues to have an impact into adolescence and adulthood.

For more information and a deeper dive into the topic, we recommend taking a look at the national Education Report 2022.

Current situation in Germany

Unequal conditions are not only found in the field of education. To gain insight into the current situation in Germany, we explore three other areas as examples.


In 2018, the Socio-Economic Panel (read here) examined the physical limitations among people with different levels of education. In comparison, people with a lower level of education are up to 2.3 times more likely to suffer from psychological or physical discomfort and are limited in their daily lives because of the resulting pain. The study also shows that people with lower levels of education are less likely to take advantage of preventive health measures, such as cancer screening examinations, dental check-ups and the health check-up from the age of 35. Education therefore not only has an impact on a person’s career, but also on their physical well-being.

Housing market

In terms of housing, many people face barriers to accessing affordable housing. According to a survey (read here) by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, 35% of people with an immigrant background report they have experienced racial discrimination while looking for housing and have received rejections on job applications with above-average frequency. Not only is it significantly more difficult for them to find housing, but they are also more often forced to pay higher rents as a result, placing an additional financial burden on them.

Financial resources

Oxfam’s January 2023 report, “Taxation for Social Justice,” outlines, among other things, the unequal distribution of wealth in Germany. Oxfam shows that the entire poorer half of the population only owns 1.3% of the wealth. In contrast, the richest 10% own 67.3% and the top 0.1% even 20.4% of the wealth. The unequal distribution of wealth in Germany contributes to social injustice and thus to unequal opportunities. For example, people with low wealth have more limited access to education, healthcare and other resources, which in turn also limits social mobility.

Strategies for more equal opportunities

Menschen auf einer Konferenz. Das Bild ist verschwommen und nur die Umrisse der Leute zu erkennen.
Source: Canva

But how can these inequalities be prevented or changed? There are various approaches to this, some of which we would like to present here.

Laws against discrimination

A central aspect is the deconstruction of discrimination and prejudice of all kinds. A society can only be fair if people are not treated unequally on the basis of origin, wealth or gender. The Anti-Discrimination Act provides the legal basis for taking action against discrimination. For this purpose, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency is an important point of contact for those affected. In addition to this, it also offers many interesting studies and background information on the current situation in Germany.

A concrete example of an anti-discriminatory legal measure is the introduction of gender parity in management positions, which came into force in 2021 with the Leadership Positions Act. It makes “specifications for more gender equality in the executive and supervisory boards of large German companies, for companies with federal participation, and for certain top positions in the public service.”

Educational opportunities as a foundation

Because of the high value placed on education, concepts for more equal opportunities in the education sector are equally important. The German government’s Startchancen program is to begin in 2024/2025 and will provide financial support for schools in economically disadvantaged locations. The budget will be used where it is needed most. This applies to 4,000 schools, which are to receive funding for better school equipment, measures to develop teaching methods and support through multi professional teams.

In addition, in May 2023 the German government passed a law to expand all-day education and childcare options for children of primary school age, with the federal government supporting the states with over 5 billion euros (read here). As well as the DigitalPakt Schule (read here) as an important instrument for giving students digital skills for the future.

Despite these important measures, a central problem has not yet been solved. Many schools are in enormous need of refurbishment, which KfW Bank estimates at around 50 billion euros for the whole of Germany. Instead of saving measures, there are therefore increasing calls for special funds for education to provide a basis for successful learning.

Further education as an opportunity

Although the focus lies on child education, education is not only important for children. Adults also benefit from lifelong learning. To promote this, the Qualification Opportunities Act came into force in 2019, which is intended to give employees access to further training opportunities. Support is now available to people who are affected by general or digital structural workplace changes, or to those who work in a “bottleneck occupation” (occupations affected by the shortage of skilled workers).

Access to healthcare

Of course, there are also approaches in the health sector to ensure equal access to health care. For example, the Cooperation Network for Equal Health Opportunities is committed to ensuring that all people have access to health care, regardless of their financial situation. This is intended to compensate for health disadvantages due to the current life situation, which, as described above, are often related to one’s own starting opportunities.

Support does not always arrive

As important as equal opportunity is to a functioning society, its challenges are difficult and complex. Unfortunately, the offers often do not reach where they are needed most.

One reason is a lack of digital skills and access. About 6% of the German population has never used the Internet in 2022, that is 3.4 million people (more here). Thus, they do not have the same resources available to them as those who do use the Internet. In addition, the websites of government offices and public institutions are often not designed with sufficient accessibility in mind and are, for example, difficult to understand for non-German speakers or people with learning disabilities.

How you can get involved

Even though we have only highlighted a small part of the issue here, it should be clear how complex and fundamental the topic of equal opportunities is for a functioning society. The various government measures are important and should be supplemented accordingly.

In addition, however, civil society involvement also plays an important role. That’s why you’ll find countless opportunities to get involved in promoting equal opportunities at Whether you help children with their homework, sponsor refugees, or introduce senior citizens to technology – find your way to work for better opportunities for everyone now.

Your team from 
wishes you a lot of fun
with your volunteering project for more equal opportunity!

2 Replies

  1. Jackline Nantunze 01.11.23 - 10:12

    This is a great time watching and reading through, now I know Germany is a democratic country, regardless of rumors

    • Anna 01.11.23 - 10:40

      Glad to hear you enjoyed reading our blog. Do you mind explaining what rumors you mean?

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