Diversity & Inclusion

What Does ‘Equity’ Really Mean to Effective DEI?

In preparing for this piece, I set my sights on demystifying the term “equity,” as in diversity, equity, and inclusion, (DEI). I wanted to explore the part equity plays in creating a healthier workplace culture, which led me to this question: “What exactly is the difference between ‘equity’ and ‘equality’?” 

I came across this situation that illustrates the point. Let’s see what you think. Of these two scenarios, which do you think is equity, and which is equality?

Scenario 1: There is equipment in the workplace that workers must have in order to do their jobs. The equipment is kept on the top shelf of the manufacturing floor and is available to everyone. People are free to grab the equipment and use it as needed to fulfill their job requirements.

Scenario 2: One person on the team is in a wheelchair and can’t reach the equipment. She asks coworkers for assistance, but they are not always available to help. The manager notices this and moves the equipment to a lower shelf, where it is accessible to everyone.

If you picked scenario 1 as equality and scenario 2 as equity, you were right. Here’s a simple way to think about the difference: Equality means that everyone gets the same opportunity in the same way, and equity means that opportunities are shaped to fit with the needs of each individual in a way he or she feels is fair. In the example above, yes, the equipment was available to everyone, but it was not accessible to everyone. Moving the equipment shifted the situation from equal to equitable.

Here’s a chart that breaks down this scenario a bit more.

SituationThe equipment is on the top shelf, available to everyone.The equipment is available and accessible to everyone.
AccommodationNoneMove equipment to lower shelf.
What happensNot everyone can access the equipmentEveryone can get access.
ResultPeople who can’t get access to the equipment don’t reach their goalsEveryone has the same opportunity to reach their goals.

The example above is simple, but the same concept applies when we think about the company’s processes. Here’s another example, this time in relation to the advancement process in the organization.

Equality: A position has opened up for a management role, and the company is first looking within the ranks of the organization. It has posted the job for qualified candidates to apply.

Equity: In addition to the job posting, the recruitment manager reaches out to promising candidates, encouraging them to apply and offering mentorship assistance to ensure they are prepared for the interview process.

Let’s break this one down a bit further, as well.

SituationA new management position is posted for everyone.The management position is posted, and promising candidates are encouraged to apply.
AccommodationNoneMentorship opportunities are available to help prepare for the interview.
What happensPeople who are traditionally promoted will feel most confident to apply.Anyone who needs help with the interview process will get the support they need.
ResultThe candidate slate may be less diverse.The candidate slate is more likely to be diverse.

In both examples, it shows how to consider what individuals in the company need to succeed, creating an equitable situation for all. And it’s important to stress that equity is not meant to create a disadvantage for anyone. Considering the examples above, lowering a shelf could make equipment more accessible for everyone, not just the individual in the wheelchair. And access to mentoring is the kind of support anyone can benefit from. At its best, equity is an enabler for everyone and a detractor for no one.

Why Isn’t Equality Enough? It’s a Question of Fairness

Traditionally, equality was considered to be fair enough. You are provided with an opportunity, the same opportunity that everyone else has, and that should be all you need to succeed. But there’s a problem with this.

Equality, while on its face a good thing, can perpetuate a homogenous culture. Why? Because we feel comfortable with sameness. Relying on the comfort of the status quo, research shows that we are most likely to hire people just like ourselves. And it stands to reason that we are also likely to apply this same approach to inclusion and advancement. So, while we may think we are treating people equally, we may inadvertently be turning away candidates who are different from ourselves, such as underrepresented groups, without even realizing that we’re doing it. That’s why intervention is needed—in the form of equity.

How Does Equity Support a Healthy Workplace Culture?

When people believe they have a fair chance of succeeding, they feel like they are truly a part of the organization. But if they come to believe they are shut out of advancement, they will feel helpless. They won’t have a sense of belonging or a commitment to the organization. 

Research from Gartner shows that less than 20% of employees today believe they work in a “high fairness” environment. But at the same time, organizations do know that equity is important, with 88% of companies featuring equity in their values and 658% more S&P Global 500 companies mentioning DEI in earnings calls since 2018

So, why is equity so important? Because organizations can have a diverse culture and it can even be inclusive, but if people don’t feel like it’s fair from their perspective, then the whole DEI effort will crumble. And equity doesn’t just belong to one group or another. Equity applies to everyone within the company.

For a culture to be healthy, all employees should feel like their work is important, that they are being treated fairly, and that they are well supported and have what they need to progress within the organization.

… advance equity by giving every member of your workforce the access, enablement, and advancement they need to succeed—and to offer the diverse experience and viewpoints that help your organization serve your customers and grow.How Business Leaders Can Build a More Equitable Workforce, Deloitte, HBR

What Can You Do to Create a More Equitable Organization?

For organizations to become more equitable, they must be introspective and question the status quo. This means looking at potential obstacles that may be getting in the way of achieving diversity and inclusion.

Instead of saying “This is the way we do things,” we must ask ourselves: “Why aren’t we attracting and retaining a diverse set of talent?” and “What can we do to create greater equity?”

Here are four ways you can take steps toward creating a more equitable work environment.

Lean into Transparency and Bring Everyone Along in the Journey

Tell your company story, and explain your approach. Ensure that employees, customers, investors, and stakeholders understand the meaning of equity as it relates to situations in your organization. Lean into transparency, and create communications that offer concrete examples of the changes you are planning to make and why. Make all your constituents a part of your journey, understanding that there will be leaps forward, incremental steps, and much to be learned along the way.

Create Shared Understanding Through Education and Training

To create equity, your employees and managers need to understand what it means in practice. Introduce training into your organization that can provide guidance on how to make the most equitable choices, with concrete examples that will resonate in their daily work lives. Ensure that you can demonstrate what “fair” means in relation to equity. Include exercises that allow them to make choices in a variety of situations and apply what they have learned. And because consistency is the key to learning, plan to develop a regular pattern for continuing education.

Make Everyone Part of Your Journey

The key to creating greater equity in your organization is to make everyone the center of the journey. There are no losers when it comes to an equitable environment. There are only winners. And there is no need to discount the people who have traditionally enjoyed power and privilege, as they are often in the best position to help bring others along. If people feel they are part of the solution, resistance to change can be significantly lowered.

Question, Adjust and Add to Existing Processes

Sometimes our current processes and systems are inherently inequitable, and we blindly follow them because that’s what we’ve always done. Start by looking at your recruitment, onboarding, and advancement processes. Do your policies function as an impermeable wall, or are they flexible enough to find new ways to seek out talent or support the needs of your individual employees? For recruitment, do you rely solely on managers for candidate referrals, or do you tap all employees to connect with their networks? With onboarding and advancement, do you have opportunities for extra support for the employees who need it, such as peer-to-peer mentorship or talent upskilling?

By reflecting on such questions and taking steps like these, you can use equity as a platform for positive change. Organizations that not only embrace diversity and inclusion but also demonstrate their commitment through equity will have the best chance for attracting and retaining new talent—and building a more collaborative, innovative, and resilient organization in the years to come.

Natasha Nicholson is Director of Content Marketing at Kantola Training Solutions, an e-learning company focused on DEI and harassment prevention training solutions. She is responsible for thought leadership, content strategy, and production, and her background includes more than 20 years as a content leader, a communication strategist, and an editor. Before Kantola, she was the content director for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and served as executive editor for Communication World and Catalyst magazines.

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