Recently I listened to a panel discussion on TV that covered a wide range of topics—one of which was particularly interesting to me. The show’s host and their panel discussed why so many people were using the word “equity” in lieu of “equality." While together these represented both “sides” of the political spectrum, they all seemed to agree that “equity” was at best an unnecessary word, and at its worst a sneaky way for activists to push their political agendas.
In my head (okay, maybe I used by out-loud voice) I debated them, much to the confusion of my dog. My private debate inspired this post.
Yes, panel, Removing two letters from the word “equality” does make a difference.
For an extended period, the host and his guests discussed “what gives” with the word “equity” and debated whether it meant anything different than the word “equality.” Their collective consensus was that there’s no meaningful difference. But rather than stopping there, perhaps with a comment that it’s just semantics, they went on… and on. Declaring at one point that it’s a sneaky way to push forward an agenda.
In a (narrow) way, they're right: People are using the word "equity" instead of "equality" for a reason. Why? Because the words aren't synonyms. And the outcomes of practicing one vs. the other aren't the same. Let's consult a dictionary:
Equality [ ih-kwol-i-tee ] noun, plural e·qual·i·ties. 1. the state or quality of being equal 2; correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability: The district is implementing a college readiness plan to achieve equality of outcomes for its graduates applying to higher education programs. : Compare equity (def. 3). 2. uniform character, as of motion or surface. Mathematics. a. the relationship between equal quantities, as expressed in an equation. b. a statement that two quantities are equal; equation.
Equity [ ek-wi-tee ] noun, plural eq·ui·ties. 1. the quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality: the equity of Solomon. 2. something that is fair and just: The concepts and principles of health equities and inequities are important to society as a whole. 3. the policy or practice of accounting for the differences in each individual’s starting point when pursuing a goal or achievement, and working to remove barriers to equal opportunity, as by providing support based on the unique needs of individual students or employees.: Compare equality (def. 1).
As highlighted, the definition of “equity” ends with “Compare equality (def. 1). So, let’s do just that.
Equality is defined as the state of being equal; and the definition of equal is “the same as.” Def inition 2 of Equality speaks directly to this: being of “uniform character.” The example used is of an entity seeking equal outcomes among a group of (presumably diverse) individuals.
Equity, meanwhile, has embedded in its definition the concepts of fairness and justness. It builds on the first definition of equality — where equality of outcomes is sought — by accounting for the differences in each person’s starting point.
The picture shown here is well known. Each individual on the left is being treated equally, yet by not accounting for differences in height, one individual is left out. (As a short person, I can relate!) But on the right, all are being treated equitably so that each can watch the ballgame.
Diversity is to Equality as Inclusiveness is to Equity
J. David Pincus, is the Chief Innovation Officer for Leading Indicator Systems (LIS) and a PhD in Social Psychology. He explains that while diversity and inclusion “co-occur” in our language, they’re not the same thing. “Inclusion,” he explains, “refers to a multidimensional set of psychological, structural, and environmental factors that, together, provide a sense of justice, safety, personal agency, and belongingness.”
Pincus asserts that when organizations (governments, public agencies, private-sector employers, etc.), individuals are unable to (or disadvantaged in striving to):
1. Reach their full potential.
2. Develop meaningful relationships, and
3. Perform meaningful work.
These multi-dimensional factors Pincus outlines are “critical permission-gateways” that allow each of us to express our individuality, which in turn leads to more positive outcomes in our personal and professional lives.
Trust is key here. In “How Inclusion Fuels Engagement,” LIS highlights the work of Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School professor and former SVP of Leadership and Strategy at Uber. Frei posits that trust is what underpins truly inclusive work environments. And how is trust built in an organization? When authenticity, logic, and empathy co-exist and work together.
This perspective feeds back to the difference between equality and equity.
It makes sense, logically, for an organization to invest in the factors that will enable employees to perform at their best. Among these are factors that allow every employee to bring their authentic self to work. Empathy, meanwhile, helps an organization examine its programs and policies to ensure that these critical contributors to both the work experience and employees’ total wellbeing are designed to meet the needs of all employees — and that these programs and policies are fully accessible to everyone.
Making it real
If I’d been on that panel, I would have entered the discussion by sharing one personal experience from several years ago that starkly brought to life for me the difference between equality and equity.
Like a few hundred other people that afternoon, I’d bought a ticket on Amtrak to travel from Philadelphia to New York’s Penn Station. Like most, I had both a computer bag (backpack in my case) and a suitcase (a small roller bag). Unlike most (if not all) of my fellow travelers, I was dealing with complications from knee surgery, which limited my mobility at the time.
As I lined up to get down to the train platform, I noticed the line was moving slower than usual. When I got to the front, I discovered why: The escalator wasn’t working so passengers were making their way down a long, narrow staircase. I asked the station employee if there was another way down to the platform. He replied, “usually yes. But not today. The elevator is out too.”
I stared down the staircase for a few seconds, trying to figure out what to do when the station employee said I needed to get going. I started, walking the stairs the only way I could at the time: Left foot down one step, right foot joining the left on the same step, and so on, with my suitcase (awkwardly) in tow. Next thing I know the station employee tells the person behind me to carry my suitcase in the hopes that I’d be able to move faster.
I. Was. Mortified.
I wasn’t looking for some “unfair advantage” that afternoon — certainly not in the form of having someone carry my bag (though I did express my gratitude to this individual). What I did want that afternoon was equal equitable access to the platform.
Returning to the definition of equity, what I wanted was assistance (not embarrassment), accounting for the differences in my starting point. I wanted a more practical approach to removing the barrier that kept me from getting down to the platform with some degree of dignity and without inconveniencing my fellow passengers who I was holding up. And legally, I was entitled to that.
For me this particular situation was temporary — soon (as in a few months) I was getting around “normally.” Yet every day, many US adults have difficulty walking or climbing stairs: 11.1% of us, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And as my experience that day (and subsequent observations) demonstrated, physical access to places is still a problem, despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 30 years ago.
Returning to the broader focus of equity, each of us desires to be treated equitably, based on our differences. Whether we’re among the:
85% of American adults paying for at least part of a child’s college tuition, with increasing numbers having to tap into long-term savings and investments to pay for that education,
64% living paycheck to paycheck,
61% who’ve personally experienced or observed workplace discrimination,
55% and 23% of the workforce comprised of women and/or BIPOC individuals, respectively (a group who continues to be underrepresented in many industries and among executives),
33% who lack access to a primary care doctor,
25% who have some form of physical or cognitive disability,
20% who will experience some form of mental illness this year,
17.4 percent who live in areas considered “food deserts,”
9 percent of the LGBTQ+ community who experience various forms of discrimination when trying to access appropriate healthcare,
… fundamentally, 100% of us all want the same things.
What are the implications for the workplace?
Like Maslow, LIS emphasis the importance of having fundamental needs met for the benefit of the individual and the business. As Pincus explains, “None of the six components highlighted (in the table below) fall into the highest-level needs. This clearly demonstrates that inclusion, not just diversity and fairness, and equity, not just equality, are basic and mandatory needs in the workplace.”
“Without these,” Pincus advises, “there can be no attainment of personal potential, or diminished achievement of material success and receipt of meaningful recognition, or dedication to a higher purpose.”
And, I would add, there can be no high-performing workforce without these core and higher-level components, either.
The key to all of this is for leaders to recognize that equality isn’t the same as equity, that diversity doesn’t automatically lead to inclusion and belonging, and that the results organizations and individuals seek can’t be fully realized without acting on the “semantic” difference between equality and equity.
This is the very real way that I would have addressed the question about the difference between equality and equity.