How To Make Equity Work – At Work

Creating Equity is Good for People and Business.

The Five Factors of Equity

What does it look like when someone is “treated equitably” at work? How does an organization make equity happen? Also, what is equity, and how is it different from equality?

I got tired of not having a good answer to these questions when clients would ask. Simply explaining the difference between equity and equality and showing the popular visuals doesn’t do enough justice to the full meaning of equity, and how we can apply it. 

Unsurprisingly, those who deal with the sting of inequity daily are the ones who are best at explaining the sometimes abstract concept. Upon interviewing professionals across industries and identities, my colleagues and I created a process to review and sort the data from this basic question:  

“How have you felt unfairly treated at work?” 

Over time, we collected hundreds of answers. Eventually, patterns started to emerge from their answers and the situations they described, and those patterns sorted into what I began to call “The Five Factors of Equity ”.

All sorts of people participated in the survey, not just members of underrepresented groups. We discovered that the answers people from the same groups gave were often similar. For example, many women whose jobs required them to travel reported feeling unsafe at times. Yet, very few men in the same situation reportedly feel unsafe. Women are harassed, threatened, followed, or attacked a lot more often than men, so travel becomes a disadvantage for many women, requiring them to put a lot more effort into staying safe than their male colleagues.  

Interestingly, there were many examples of how people from one group experience disadvantages in similar situations while members from other groups experience the same problem as either a nonissue or an advantage. 

There are forms of disadvantage that uniquely belong to people from underrepresented groups. One example is the limited physical access people with physical disabilities experience in spaces where access was not considered during design and build.

People from all groups can and do experience disadvantage, but insider or dominant group members experience it less. However, people who are from the diaspora of underrepresented groups encounter unfairness at work by a factor of magnitude more than those who are from the dominant or insider group. And by ‘more’, I mean they encounter unfairness more often and in a wider variety of ways than their insider or dominant group colleagues.

Finally, for those who experienced overlapping or “intersectional” levels of disadvantage – people who are marginalized based on more than one factor –  such as a person of color who uses a wheelchair or a woman who has a hearing impairment – the frequency and variety of ways they experience unfairness was, in general, even higher. 

What do we do in light of this information?

One thing is sure: we don’t need to feel sorry for people who experience disadvantage. No one likes to be pitied; in most cases, they have managed it their whole lives. Living with their disadvantage has often contributed to them being incredibly resilient. What they do benefit from is our empathy and our partnership in creating more equitable workplaces. 

Similarly, being born into circumstances with fewer inherited disadvantages isn’t cause for apology or admissions of guilt; we had nothing to do with it – we were simply born into it. Much like finding our empathy for folks who experience systemic disadvantage, it’s essential to acknowledge the advantages we inherited and use them to advocate for more workplace equity.

As a result of what we learned, we came up with this definition of equity: 

“EQUITY” (noun): The policy and practice of accounting for the differences in each individual’s starting point when pursuing professional development or a goal or achievement and providing them with the resources necessary to succeed.

Use our definition or create your own, but don’t let debating a definition of equity prevent you from taking action. Chances are, there are people at your work right now who are putting out a lot of effort just to fit in, feel safe, be seen as credible, and have at least some access to the people in power. 

Creating equity doesn’t mean they’ll work less, they’ll have healthier levels of energy and time to give you even more of their best. They’re also likely to stay with your organization longer because they won’t feel the exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment they feel through inequity. 

For more on the Five Factors of Equity framework, visit this blog for details and reflections for each factor.

Interested in bringing the equity framework to your organization?

Contact us.
Note:  Endless thanks to my colleagues Noah Prince and Maylon Hannold for their contributions to developing the Equity In Action process, including identifying and naming the Five Factors.

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