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Recognizing Difference: Equality vs. Equity

The words “equality” and “equity” are often used interchangeably to reflect the larger goal of fairness and opportunity for everyone. But in the global business world, there are some important differences in approach that impact how we manage diverse teams. In this article, we’ll define each term, show their relationship to each other, and offer strategies for incorporating an equity lens into your management style.

Equality vs. Equity

An Equality approach gives everyone the exact same support to reach their full potential. It assumes that everyone starts out from the exact same starting point and can be treated identically.

An Equity approach acknowledges that individuals don’t start off the same therefore will need different support to reach their full potential. These differences exist not only because of temperament and working style but also because each person enters the workplace from unique social circumstances (such as age, education, race, gender, abilities, personalities, learning styles, motivators, strengths, developmental areas, skills etc.).

We believe that equity is the means to get to the goal of equal opportunities.  Equity addresses the needs of today’s diverse workforce so that all employees have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential. To understand why, consider the example of giving feedback to a small team of equally qualified and hardworking employees:

  • Keisha prefers her feedback immediately and verbally. Receiving feedback while events are still fresh in her mind, and in person, helps her to feel confident that she’s listening constructively.
  • Daveed prefers feedback after he’s taken some time to process. He isn’t able to fully engage with feedback until a few hours or even days later.
  • Martha has difficulty with verbal feedback. It prompts feelings of anxiety and defensiveness. However, she has learned that written feedback is a better way for her to engage with constructive criticism.

In this example, tailoring each individual’s feedback does not constitute “special treatment.” Feedback is a valuable part of employee development and therefore no employee should be exempt from this opportunity. In fact, tailoring employee feedback to reflect their unique needs is a core part of providing everyone with equal opportunity to grow.

Implications & Risks

The risk of an equality approach to our management practices is that it doesn’t recognize that many of our workplace practices are based on an implicit norm or standard. This norm is often based on the dominant group and can be unwittingly biased against underrepresented groups. For example, in unstructured brainstorming sessions, the people with the loudest voices are often the most recognized for their contributions. Other employees may also have contributions but power dynamics and their quieter communication styles may not lend themselves to unstructured brainstorming sessions with large groups. Relying on only one way to contribute ideas (eg. unstructured brainstorming) is a practice that inherently favors those who are extroverted, process information quickly, speak the native language, and feel comfortable speaking publicly. Therefore, we must utilize a variety of tactics and management practices in order to foster an environment where everyone feels they can contribute ideas equally.

An easy analogy to understand this complex issue is to think about left-handed people. Although we don’t think about it much, the world is made for right-handed people. Scissors, can openers, desks, notebooks, zippers, and credit card checkouts, are all based on a right-handed standard. Left-handed people need different tools that allow them to work as fluidly and effortlessly as right-handed people.

Tips & Solutions

When creating inclusive practices for your team, you will need to determine the individual needs of your employees. A practical tip for creating a more equitable workplace is to change how you set-up and conduct brainstorming sessions:

  • Provide the topic for brainstorming the day before. This gives team members who don’t do well with spur of the moment ideation or those who may not be native speakers time to prepare and contribute their best ideas.
  • To ensure that all voices in the room are heard, go round-robin style instead of waiting for people to jump in.
  • When time permits, switch to 1-on-1 conversations to also gather ideas.

Switching up techniques is a strategy for maximizing the contribution of ideas from a diverse team. The aim is not to privilege one set of ideas over another, but to afford everyone the chance to have their ideas heard, tested, and tried.

Contact us for diversity solutions tailored for your team and workplace.