What is the Difference Between Equity and Equality and What Does That Mean for Leadership?

Tell me… do you strive to treat everyone equally? What about with equity?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a good chance you already factor equity into your leadership approach. If not, it’s time to make that shift. Why? Because equity over equality is how you empower the success of your people. It’s also how you, as a leader, can take an active role in making the world a better place.

In this article, we’ll explore:

Equity vs Equality Explained

To start, let’s explain the difference between equity and equality:

  • Equality is when everyone gets the same thing.
  • Equity recognizes that not everyone is starting from the same place, and works to provide resources for equal outcomes to be possible.

In many ways, equity is the roadmap to equality. Let’s explore an example:

Imagine you want everyone on your team to become experts on a new software suite. Some team members have prior experience with the software, others have never used it before.

Treating everyone with equality, you would provide the exact same training to everyone. In that scenario, you would have:

  • Some people wasting time with training they don’t need
  • Or, some not getting adequate training to become experts
  • Or, some getting even greater training so that, while all can be experts, the ones who already started out at an advantage now far surpass their teammates.

Either way, the outcome is not equal.

If, however, you were to treat them with equity, you might provide introductory training to the people with no experience, then further training for all. In this scenario, by providing resources that empower equal outcomes – instead of equal resources – everyone has equal opportunity to become experts.

The resources are not equal, but the outcome empowers equality.

Seeing this example, it’s clear why you’d want to aim for an equity approach as a leader. Every human being has the same potential for success, but they are not all starting with the same resources. When you get curious about what resources are needed and work to make those resources accessible, it empowers people to actually realize their potential.

Equity vs Equality at a Workplace

Put simply, we can say that equality is sameness while equity is fairness.

Everyone in your workplace has likely worked hard for what they have. But, they’ve also worked hard WITH what they had to start out with. That isn’t the same for everyone AND you often won’t know where they’re starting from.

In the example above with software training, it’s fairly straightforward to know where everyone is at. But let’s imagine a different scenario…

Imagine you have two employees. One grew up surrounded by positive role models, and people with the ability and willingness to guide their growth, education and career. The other did not. Both are hard-working, but because they started with very different resources, the same amount of hard work will have gotten the more advantaged employee much further.

In a workplace environment, these differences in background and life experience are often unknown and unseen. Because of this, growth and development programs must take an approach of:

  • Everyone has equal potential to succeed;
  • Not everyone is starting with the same resources;
  • It is in the best interests of the organization to provide access to resources that may be missing so that everyone’s highest potential can be realized.

Equity and Meeting People Where They Are

When we’re talking about equality and equity, our main focus is on improving diversity in the workplace. That means gender diversity, racial diversity, as well as inclusion of other marginalized and systemically disadvantaged groups. It means increasing the diversity of your workplace at all levels, AND making your workplace an inclusive environment where all people feel safe, included, valued, and empowered to bring their best selves.

Meeting people where they are means understanding that many people may not feel like they truly belong. They feel that way because they likely have been excluded and made to feel unwelcome – consciously or unconsciously – in so many environments throughout their lives.

As a leader, to be able to meet people where they are, you first need to meet yourself where YOU are. This means full acceptance of YOU. Yes, you. Recognize where you fall on the diversity spectrum and how that impacts your perspective. Chances are, you have a lot of blindspots (many of us do). So, educating yourself will be your step two.

These 2 steps – accepting where you are and educating yourself – are critical. They will provide your foundation for moving forward in supporting others. Also, these 2 steps do not end. Your own growth demands that you continually revisit them. Check in with yourself. What else can you learn? What new blindspots have you become aware of?

In addition to your inner work, you’ll want to shift your leadership approach to one that meets people where they are.

Here are 8 tips for meeting people where they are:

  • Do not compare – Avoid things like, “So-and-so did this. I expect you to be able to do the same.” Comparison fuels toxic environments. It reinforces those toxic messages in society that say some people are more worthy than others. It also assumes that everyone is working from the same place, which we know is not the case.
  • Combine curiosity with compassion – Get curious about why some people may have an easier time succeeding in your workplace than others. Dig into what truly holds some people back. Initiate conversations at all levels, always with curiosity and compassion, and no judgment.For example, you may ask a recently promoted colleague what they feel led to their success. In listening to their answer, ask yourself, “Is what helped them truly accessible to everyone in our organization?” When talking to people about their goals or dreams, ask them what they feel would be their biggest barrier and really listen to their answer. Truth is often found in what we don’t say. For example, if they don’t talk about a sense of community or support, ask yourself why not. A sense of community and belonging can be one of the strongest indicators of success, so why might that not be accessible to everyone?
  • Let the personal in – Life doesn’t exist in silos. Our personal lives always impact our professional lives, whether we admit it or not. Blaze the trail by bringing your personal life in when relevant. That might sound like, “I have some personal stuff distracting me today, so I’m not in the best mindset. I hope you all know you don’t have to bring your A-game every day either. We’re all human and we’re all going to struggle”When coaching employees, you might invite in the personal with a question like, “Let’s imagine the company could help you in any way possible – work related or not – what would help you succeed?”
  • Diversify who you spend time with – This is a big one! As a leader, think about the team members you’re most at ease with. People you chat with, go for coffee with, stop to talk to in the halls, meet for drinks after work. Do they… look a lot like you? Share similar backgrounds? This is a really common thing that usually happens unconsciously. But, as Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”These kinds of friendly relationships are actually informal mentorship, and often gives the other person an advantage in their careers. Even if you don’t actively help them advance, their relationship with you – a leader – helps put them at ease and builds their confidence. That puts them at an advantage when it comes to taking on high profile projects or going for promotions.Part of meeting people where they are is quite literally meeting them. Set the intention to have more informal interactions with all your team members. In an equity approach, aim for more of those interactions with people you haven’t done this with in the past.
  • Only ask for what’s actually necessary – This tip is exclusive to job postings and promotion requirements.When you ask for higher degrees or certifications, you instantly constrict your candidate pool, and exclude many people from diverse backgrounds. Although this article is specific to the US, it gives an idea of many of the barriers to higher education faced by non-white people across North America. This roundup of diversity statistics from InStride also provides some pretty stark numbers on the state of education access today.Degree requirements in job postings are often not specific to the role. In fact, many simply list “bachelor’s degree or higher”. The reason usually given is that earning a degree is an indicator of hard work, commitment and persistence.A bachelor’s degree is NOT the only indicator of those qualities. What’s more, it’s not even a guaranteed indicator. If you’re looking for someone who’s hard working, committed and persistent… Just list those qualities as requirements!If you really do need someone with an advanced certification, is it a certificate they can work towards while working for you? In which case, the necessary requirement would simply be a commitment to complete the certification within a certain time period.If you want great people and try to find them by demanding higher education, you limit yourself to people who’ve had some very specific advantages in their background, and exclude a vast talent pool of creative, innovative, collaborative, resilient, adaptive, motivated, incredible people who could do amazing things within your organization.
  • Embrace servant leadershipServant leadership is an approach that seeks to support people in whatever way they need. The servant leader looks at every situation and asks, “What’s missing here and how can I fill that gap?”Servant leaders are not enablers. They don’t do the work for others. Instead, they look at how they can optimize everything from the environment, to working conditions, to expectations and so on, so that there are no barriers to brilliance.
  • Actively cultivate a culture where all truth is welcome – Demanding that everyone bring their authentic self to work doesn’t make your workplace authentic. And I can’t explain that any better than Jodi-Ann Burey in her eye-opening TedTalk.If your workplace isn’t a safe space for EVERYONE to be authentic, then not everyone has the same opportunity to bring their authentic self forward. Making that change starts with leadership. You have to do the legwork of making your workplace a safe space for everyone.
  • Develop an internal coaching or mentorship program – And strive for diversity among your coaches and mentors! If your organization lacks diversity at those higher levels, that’s a huge red flag. Either you lack diversity throughout the entire organization (another major red flag to address), or you aren’t putting in the resources to make success possible for everyone.This is a big one in terms of equity. Some people have access to amazing mentors throughout their lives, many do not. Having mentors or coaches who have lived your experience is a huge advantage that can help people succeed in big ways.

Diversity & Gender Equality Training in the Workplace

When we talk about empowering diversity in the workplace, often the first path considered is to invest in diversity and gender equality training programs.

That can be a good start. However, I highly recommend seeking out training or coaching that works at the leadership level and that takes a mindset approach. The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company focuses heavily on workplace diversity. In their research, they found that most training programs just aren’t working to increase diversity. Why not? It comes down to mindset.

Many of us might think we have an inclusive mindset but, unconsciously, we don’t. In the McKinsey article above, they use the example of gender-inclusive language in job descriptions. In listing ideal characteristics, we might use the word “assertive”, not realizing that in our society, “assertive” is a highly gendered word, and we might balance it with a word like “cooperative”.

In another example, this Forbes article points out how often “English as a first language” is listed as a job requirement when “Must be fluent in English” meets the same requirement, but in an inclusive way.

These may seem like small things, but it’s the small things – all these “micro-inclusions” we might say – that make up corporate culture. Far more than corporate values or missions, it’s the everyday habits, behaviours and perspectives that form culture, and that ultimately determine if your workplace truly is inclusive or not.

The importance of gender and diversity equality training in the workplace still stands. But we have to rethink the approach. Because so much of the “small” things are unconscious, training must focus on raising consciousness to shift mindsets. That has to start at the leadership level because leadership sets the tone for the organization.

Where Your Responsibility Ends

An equity counter argument I’ve heard many times is, “What if someone just doesn’t take advantage of the resources provided? Do I have to keep providing more and more opportunities to that one person?”

The short answer is no. But first, take a good look at the resources you’re providing and how you’re providing them. Do they meet people where they are? Is training accessible? Is it at a time that works for everyone? Do benefits meet the unique needs of different families? Is there enough flexibility built in? Have you addressed any language barriers? Does the corporate culture make it safe to seek help? Is the corporate culture truly inclusive?

Also have the difficult conversation that needs to be had. Find out if there’s a personal issue at play, or even an interpersonal issue at the office. Get curious – no judgment.

If you’ve explored all avenues and the person still isn’t rising to the opportunity, that’s where your responsibility ends. But do your due diligence first. Do it fully, honestly, courageously and with compassion.

The Bottom Line

When equality is the approach, it’s the most advantaged people who succeed. When equality is the goal and equity is the approach, everyone gets a genuinely fair shot at succeeding. That’s when the organization has the best shot at reaching higher and higher levels, and when the organization becomes a real player in changing the world.

If you would like guidance in cultivating an equity approach for yourself or your leadership team, I invite you to connect with me.