It is a commonly held belief that all people who are capable of doing a task should have the chance to do so. Generally, this means that a person should not be constrained or denied from doing so for reasons such as race, sex, or being handicapped. This is the basis of equal opportunity, which is a principle that seeks to eliminate discrimination and to promote fairness.
History is full of examples of people who were prevented from doing certain things or who were treated unjustly because they were a particular race, sex, or ethnicity. Examples include people who were not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods because of their skin color, and people who were not allowed to hold certain jobs because they were female. Most modern societies tend to reject the idea that these types of prejudiced restrictions are appropriate. Instead, it is more commonly believed that when a person is capable, that person should be given the chance to do or acquire the things that she desires.
Some people, however, still hold discriminatory beliefs. To prevent innocent people from being inconvenienced by these beliefs, equal opportunity laws and policies are often put into place. These can be useful to ethnic minorities, handicapped individuals, and homosexuals. Equal opportunity requires that irrelevant factors be disregarded when certain decisions are made. Such decisions include who to rent apartments to, who to promote in the workplace, or who to issue credit to.
Equal opportunity also aims to serve the best interest of society. The type of unfairness that accompanies discrimination can have negative effects that extend beyond individuals. Discrimination can, for example, prevent a company access to the highest skilled individuals or it can cause poverty that creates a burden on social welfare systems.
In many societies, equal opportunity is a right that is written into law. This means that when decisions involving government entities arise, discrimination is prohibited. These laws often extend to certain civil entities, prohibiting them from discriminating as well. For example, banks, hospitals, and schools are commonly bound by equal opportunity laws. Those who violate these laws may be held liable.
Most private organizations, however, recognize the harm in discrimination. In an effort to protect themselves and the public, many organizations develop their own equal opportunity standards even when laws already exist. If people who are associated with these organizations violate those standards, it is common for an organization to distance itself from those individuals even if there are no grounds for legal action.