Equity vs equality
By Laura Kennedy | March 21, 2023

Focus on Equity, Not Just Equality. It’s Good for Everyone.

While equality is the main goal of societal I&D efforts, equity is the means to get there. Find out what equity looks like and how it can be used to help ensure equal opportunity access to historically marginalised communities, not just women.

Equal opportunities are no longer enough. This was the message of the 2023 International Women's Day (IWD) campaign, #EmbraceEquity, which sought to spark a worldwide conversation on the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’. But what do these terms really mean?

For years, we have been taught that gender equality is an end to its own means. In other words, if women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community are treated as equal then they are equal. But as we begin to better understand the systemic barriers that prohibit certain groups of people from accessing fair opportunities, we realise equality needs to address these barriers themselves. This process of considering the unique needs and experiences of historically marginalised communities and implementing policies and programs that level the playing field is known as equity. 

It is important as individuals, organisations, institutions and communities that we continue the conversation reignited on IWD indefinitely. More importantly, we must take measurable action to promote the fair treatment of all people, accounting for their respective needs in the process. From my perspective, the implementation of equitable opportunities is what is needed most urgently to help speed up progress. As of today, it’s projected to take 132 years to achieve global gender equality. That is not acceptable. 

Of course, my perspective is just that – mine. It is admittedly biased, developed through my own experiences as both a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. So, I sat down with Tamiko Nelson, a co-lead of the Zebras of African Descent (ZAD) inclusion network, and Nena Brichetto, co-lead of Zebra’s Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN), to learn more on how we can turn conversations on equity into action for all communities that face discrimination. Tamiko and Nena work hard to promote equity and equality within and outside the workplace. Their informed advice on how to further promote equity shows how attainable equality can be with intentional actions to help overcome systemic barriers. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation...

Laura: What does equity mean to you?

Tamiko: The concept of equity ensures that everyone has the same opportunity and access, regardless of where they are starting from. It is especially relevant to understand that for women of color to be equitable, we must recognise the barriers in society that keep them from being equal. We must also provide them with opportunities and resources that help level the playing field.

Nena: I agree. Equity is recognising that each individual or group of people has different circumstances that may keep them from being treated fairly. With this in mind, we must strive for the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome are allocated. We must meet people where they are.

Laura: In your opinion, how does equity differ from equality?

Nena: Equality and equity do not mean the same thing. I think I was well into my twenties before I honestly understood how they differ. At the time, I picked up a lesson from the United Way: Equity that taught me how equity is something we must practice before equality can take hold. For example, within Zebra’s Women’s Inclusion Network, gender equality is the goal, equity is the means. Fairness and equity mean much the same thing. Equality requires equal enjoyment of socially valued opportunities, resources and rewards by disproportionately affected communities. A helpful way to internalise how they differ is to reflect on the opposite of equality: disparity, disproportion, difference. These are obstacles we want to avoid. Each one of us can actively support and embrace equity within our own sphere of influence. 

Tamiko: I agree there is a difference between equity and equality. Equality is subject to interpretation. U.S. history has demonstrated that separate but equal did not lead to true equality. Equity brings a balance by identifying the gaps and challenges faced by marginalised groups or people with different abilities and ensuring we can accomplish the same goal.

Laura: What do you see as the limitations of focusing solely on ‘equality’ from an inclusion perspective?

Nena: There are different types of ‘equality’ such as economic, gender, social and political. If we focus solely on achieving equality for a marginalised community, we risk getting distracted with fixing the people rather than the system being disadvantaged by the system. We forget to check our blind spots, so we can’t see the total picture. For example, according to the most recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, gender parity is not recovering. It will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. The report suggests that, to address these deficiencies, workforce strategies must ensure that women are better equipped to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, i.e., equity. Remember what Tamiko said, ‘Equity ensures everyone has the same access to the same opportunity, regardless of where they start from.’ Her comment prompted a memory about starting lines. Check out the $100 Race, a short video that sums up inequality for a group of college students that we can all learn from.

Tamiko: During the 1950’s and 1960’s, a large part of the population believed equality meant having the same options. For example, African Americans could only use designated bathrooms, schools, and restaurants which, at the time, was seen as equal because everyone had access to a bathroom, school, or restaurant. But access is not truly equality. When a system is built with inequality inherently engrained, there are multiple factors to consider when balancing it. We must first focus on how to overcome these barriers through equitable opportunities and resources, rather than just focusing on achieving ‘equality’.

Laura: So, you feel equity is a more long-term and sustainable solution to supporting people who are currently marginalised?

Tamiko: Yes, we should focus on equity and be consistent, clear, and intentional when implementing programs to drive equity.  

Nena: Agreed, we should absolutely strive for long-term, sustainable solutions that balance equity with inclusion and diversity priorities. In doing so, I think it’s important that organisations take history into consideration. Historical biases are embedded in our identities and institutions and are used as a basis for discrimination and domination. Understanding helps organisations like ours underwrite strategies and practices that are green flags for those who are marginalised. 

Laura: Many people may feel accustomed to a workplace that focuses on equality but does not necessarily provide equitable opportunities and resources for them to succeed. What are some of the challenges of identifying and addressing fairness? How can people in marginalised communities navigate and confront these challenges?

Tamiko: Marginalised communities have built a culture of resilience; we reach back to bridge the gap and make the path easier for the rest of the community. But life goes beyond our backyard and that means that equality must be confronted by everyone. It is not an issue those in marginalised communities should navigate alone. Get out and be active in your community. Volunteer with organisations that support women and girls who do not have the same opportunities you enjoy every day.

Nena: One of the challenges in achieving equity is the future of work is now – right now – and it’s confusing. The pandemic accelerated dynamics. According to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, companies need to go beyond table stakes to make meaningful and sustainable progress toward equality. Marginalised communities, such as women, are seeking a different culture at work – a culture of equity. I believe people in marginalised communities need allies to help navigate and confront these challenges by endorsing them for advancement and advocating for real change. I have been using the image below to help illustrate equity. I describe the rungs of the ladders as the resources and opportunities needed to reach equal outcomes. Resources may be allies, sponsors, mentors, or all of these, and in my view, opportunities may be targeted toward upskilling and gathering feedback. 

Laura: In what ways should organisations go about ensuring their practices and procedures are equitable for employees, candidates, and communities? 

Nena: Organisations need to galvanize their entire workforce to advance equity inside and outside the four walls, especially locally. Employees at all levels should understand their brand story and be able to tell what good comes from inclusion and diversity of race, ethnicity, ability, gender, and sexual orientation, for example. In my opinion, organisations need meaningful data to close the gap between efforts and results while striving to reduce any statistically significant differences. They need to acknowledge and reward the critical work nondominant groups are doing to foster inclusion and diversity and support employee well-being. 

Tamiko: Organizations should be bold! Create programs that visibly promote equity. Be more accountable and transparent about the practices around equity. It is not acceptable for one part of a company to demonstrate equity and other parts not to. Organisations like (AWE) Advancing Women Executives and LandIT are great resources.

Laura: What about society at large? Is there something we can be doing as individuals to make sure access to personal growth and safety is more equitable, whether through education, career or community initiatives?

Tamiko: Families are the framework of our society. Support family, priorities, education, and that will impact us globally. What we learn at home still makes a huge difference.

Nena: I encourage those I get the opportunity to interact with to choose to be a role model. Whether you are acting as a leader, teacher, peer, parent, caregiver, coach, sponsor, mentor, ally or neighbor in the moment, show others how to do the right thing – they are watching. For example, taking the time to teach others about blind spots and encouraging people to reach for greater is something I do a lot as a leader. Visualise where you want to be in life. Even if your current role doesn’t reflect where you want to be in the future, allow yourself to see yourself there. If you have not seen it, commit to be the first! Then become a mentor so you will not be the last. Together, we can make today and tomorrow better for all. 

Corporate Social Responsibility, Inside Zebra Nation, Best Practices,
Laura Kennedy
Laura Kennedy

Incredibly passionate about people, culture and well-being, and a keen advocate for all things related to equality, diversity and inclusion, Laura is a Senior Advisor for Global & Inclusion & Diversity at Zebra, focused on fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging, where all employees can be their authentic selves. She supports Zebra’s Inclusion Networks and culture-shaping efforts, including increasing the focus on expanding allyship across the organization. 

Prior to this, Laura has worked on multiple cross organizational strategic projects related to Sales Enablement, Channel & Distribution Marketing, and Channel Communications, both in region and globally during her five years with Zebra .

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