by Shayne Thomas
08 Oct 2020
Understanding the Difference Between 'Equality' and 'Equity' in the Workplace
3 useful tips for making workplace equity your company’s driving force
“If equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there.” – Pipeline, “Gender Equity vs. Gender Equality: What’s the Distinction?”
There are two highly misunderstood words in the English language that all too often get used interchangeably, though incorrectly in the workplace: ‘equality’ and ‘equity.’
Even though both words are derived from the same Latin root word equ, which stands for equal, the nuance of equalness conveyed by each word is actually quite different.
According to ThoughtCo, the definition of equality is “providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all segments of society, such as races and genders,” whereas the definition for equity is “providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities” just as much as it “refers to fairness and equality in outcomes, not just in supports and opportunity.” These ideas are similar in theory but certainly not in practice.
Therefore, putting equality into practice means that equity must be part of the equation. Otherwise, fairness gets thrown out the window, and the workplace starts to become a lot less ‘equal’ than you may actually perceive it to be, in spite of your best intentions.
Workplace equality vs. workplace equity
Equality in the workplace, now a near-universal business policy and best practice, has gained momentum in recent years to help right the wrongs of long-institutionalized workplace gender and racial inequality. Unfortunately, in doing so, equality has turned into a numbers game.
Are there an equal number of men and women on the executive team? Does each employee resource group get the same budget for year-round programming? Do employees at the same job level, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability, earn the same salary?
While equality can easily be perceived as a way to put everyone on the same playing field and ensure equal visibility among majority and minority groups in the workplace, it continues to fuel inequity. It really says nothing about what businesses actually do to ensure that all employees can make an equal impact once they become part of your workforce.
This image above is a perfect way to visualize equality and equity in action. Here, “equality has to do with giving everyone the exact same resources, whereas equity involves distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients.” This is a quick and easy way to see that equality, without equity, is not really equality at all. If anything, it’s inherently unequal. Simply providing the same resources to everyone, in the hopes that doing so will enable them all to succeed in the same ways, is not the same as adapting those resources to ensure that everyone actually has the same opportunities to succeed, take part, or make an impact.
Applying this thinking to the workplace, Jim Link, Chief Human Resources Officer at Randstad North America explains that “equity is what happens when all members of a diverse population of employees have equal opportunities and support to succeed and grow.” Equity is, therefore, much less about equal hiring practices and equal pay as it is about giving all employees an equal opportunity to excel in their roles and to grow into their careers. This can be a challenge for businesses because it’s a lot more hands on. Equity requires thoughtful intention and action.
“Companies that strive for workplace equality—treating everyone the same, without discrimination—may not factor in the need for equity. The entire workforce comes under the same blanket of rules, privileges, and employee experience design, without an eye on unique, demographic-related needs. This may lead to an unfair work environment.” – HR Technologist, “5 Reasons to Focus on Workplace Equity Alongside Diversity and Inclusion”
3 ways to build equity within the workplace
If you’ve made huge strides in supporting, promoting, and instilling best practices to achieve workplace equality, it’s time to take the next step in building equity across your organization and your workforce. Here are three things that you should immediately put into practice now:
1. Avoid the “right for the job” mentality
Taking an equitable approach to making hiring decisions or extending promotions means not only considering the candidates who “fit the bill” on paper but also those who, with the right coaching and training to bridge skills gaps, might be even more motivated to succeed and excel in those roles. Even more, this helps remove the unconscious bias that can oftentimes lead managers to go with the “safe choice” almost by default.
Equity-based decision-making is all about focusing on potential. Even though candidates may have physical or learning disabilities, may come from less-fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds, may not speak English as a first language, or, as jarring as it may be, may have previously been incarcerated, does not mean that they are better or worse than other candidates with what you may deem as a “perfect” resume. What these other candidates may bring to the table is a willingness to learn, a drive to succeed, and an opportunity to grow in their careers—when other employers wouldn’t even offer them a chance to do so—that your more traditional candidates may ultimately take for granted. Take the time to see the full person, not simply what’s written on paper, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
2. Foster diversity and inclusion
Equity goes hand-in-hand with diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This should come as no surprise because fostering a diverse workplace is simply a way of acknowledging that differences exist across your workforce. Taking that one step further, inclusion is a way for businesses to demonstrate publicly that each employee’s contributions are supported, respected, and valued regardless of their background.
That being said, it’s easy for businesses to think that just because they’ve created this or that employee resource group, for example, suddenly means there’s automatic workplace diversity. Remember, that’s just equality on paper. Taking an equity-focused approach to diversity and inclusion is about giving employees from diverse minority groups an equal opportunity to shine alongside their other-minority or even non-minority colleagues, helping them feel as though they are not simply playing their part quietly from the sidelines.
3. Aim for representative leadership
Diversity shouldn’t simply exist in your individual contributor ranks. This must extend to managers and leaders, too. For example, you may have a gender-balanced workforce, but if 95% percent of the managers and leaders within your organization represent only a single gender, then you’ve got a bit of a disconnect. There may be a lot of reasons for this—many of which are completely unintentional—but the reality is, this becomes a perfect example of ‘talking the talk’ about diversity but barely even scratching the surface of ‘walking the walk.’
Equity in leadership is about words and actions. It’s not about having diversity in some parts of your business and not others. Rather, it’s about embracing a belief that leaders should be representative of the workforce, not only because it’s the equitable thing to do, but more so because it will help employees in non-leadership roles see that they have a viable and attainable career path beyond their current role.
Equally important, leaders must model the beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, and actions that they want to see from all of their employees. Leadership is not just a question about who’s in charge, as much as it is about setting an example that inspires everyone around them. Part of this requires being aware of the inequities that exist within your organization, as that’s the only way you can course-correct to create a truly equal workforce—on paper and in practice.
All things being equal...
As humans and generally good people, we want to believe in the promise of equality—and think that it will solve all of the problems that have plagued the workplace for decades (if not centuries). And by all means, don’t lose sight of those objectives. Equality is still very important for creating a leveled playing field at the workplace and, in many ways, still a battle that is being fought today in some industries more than others.
Even so, it’s important to remember that you cannot truly create workplace equality without building equitable business practices to support it. Equality is not just about showing that all things are equal on paper, but rather dedicating the time, energy, and resources to ensuring that every employee you hire has the opportunity, tailored to their capabilities and skills, to make an impact and grow in their careers. By recognizing the value and potential that each employee brings to the table, you can truly create a workplace where all things are equal.
We’ve provided a few ideas above to get you moving in the right direction. If you need more specific tips, tailored to your business’s unique needs and challenges, on how to foster a more equitable workplace, the team at Cornerstone is here to help. Contact us today to get started.