One of the first steps on any diversity, equity, and inclusion journey is to learn the terminology of DEI. While some commonly used words might be familiar to most anyone, others may have a specific meaning in the context of DEI. To fully understand the concepts, we must all have the same “dictionary.” Of the three terms that make up the acronym in DEI, the “E” for equity tends to be the one that causes the most confusion.
The Difference Between Equity & Equality
The “E” in DEI stands for “equity,” but what exactly is equity? Many people assume that equity and equality are synonyms. While they are related words, the difference in their meaning is very important to understand. Equity is defined as, “the quality of being fair and impartial.” Equality is, “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” 
Workplace equality and equity are both rooted in the idea that people should have what they need to succeed at work. However, equality focuses on making sure that everyone has the same opportunities and resources available. Equity, on the other hand, takes into consideration that not everyone is starting from the same place or has access to the same resources as a starting point. Providing the same opportunities to them as you would to someone who already has more resources will never result in even footing. To achieve equity, those who need more support and resources must be provided with them.
An Example of Equality vs. Equity in the Workplace
It is usually very easy to find examples of equality in the workplace. One, in particular, has been challenged greatly over the course of the 2020–2021 pandemic—before COVID-19 quarantine, many employers would not allow employees to work from home, no matter the reason. The justification for this was usually given as, “We cannot allow special treatment—if we allow one person to work from home, then we must allow everyone to do so.” On the surface, this seems fair. But for employees with disabilities or with young children, working in an office can create insurmountable barriers to success.
A neurodivergent employee, for example, may find it impossible to focus or get work done in a typical office environment because the bright lights, people talking, and bustling movement may impact their ability to focus for long periods. The parent of a young child may have to constantly struggle with making it to and from daycare before and after work while juggling workload, or missing work because of their child’s illness or appointments. If there is a commute to the workplace, that also adds stress and takes valuable time away from their family. Either of these employees is at a much greater risk of performing below their potential and losing—or leaving—their jobs if expected to conform to the same “rules” as those who are neurotypical or childfree.
If, however, these employees work for an organization that practices equity, that organization would have policies in place to support the different needs of their employees—including things like the option to work from home. In the appropriate environment for their needs, employees are more likely to give their best possible job performance. Not only is this better for the employees, it is great for the organization that will reap the benefits of improved productivity and a happier team. This is just one way in which providing different solutions for employees who need them enables them to fully participate. And it is a perfect example of equity in action.
Equality Cannot Provide an Equal Opportunity
The three illustrations for this blog show three people attempting to reach for apples, which represent their goals at work. The people start at different heights, representing their individual base level of resources (e.g. wealth, education, access). Figure “A” shows the state of most organizations—no additional resources are given to employees. Figure “B” shows equality—each person is given one box to stand on. This allows one person to reach the apple, but the two other people still cannot; their workplace goals remain out of reach. Under equitable conditions, shown in Figure “C,” the three people get different types of support based on their needs. Now, all three people have the ability to reach their goals in the working environment.
The visual metaphor may not be perfect, but it is apt. Every employee in a workplace has a different background and a variety of life experiences. Some may have faced challenges, such as different socio-economic backgrounds, disability, sexism, or racism, that have disadvantaged them. Others may have come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege, and may not have experienced the same kinds of struggles or setbacks. Just as we do not expect clothing to be one-size-fits-all, we shouldn’t expect people in the workplace to have identical needs. Making equitable accommodations—and yes, sometimes shifting resources—for those who need them most is the only way to truly ensure that everyone is provided with what they need to succeed at work.
I’m Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, and I founded Gupta Consulting Group to help CDOs and HR leaders create and implement DEI programs that meet their organization’s unique needs.
Schedule a conversation with me today to learn more about our DEI solutions.
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