What’s the difference between equity and equality? - Technical.ly

Company Culture

Apr. 12, 2021 3:15 pm

What’s the difference between equity and equality?

There ought to be specific targets in mind along the journey toward achieving equity within your workplace. Here's more from Technical.ly’s latest Culture Builder newsletter.
It’s time to talk racial equity.

It's time to talk racial equity.

(Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s new Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up here to get the next one this Friday.


In the workplace trio of DEI, diversity and inclusion were the first two to dominate HR practices. You’ll still find “D&I” leaders. Those two are foundational: Diversity is having a range of perspectives and inclusion is making sure those perspectives are actually heard.

Foundational or not, those two still confound the uninitiated and uninterested. A diversity consultant friend of mine described the subtle difference between a hiring manager saying “I have diverse candidates” and “I have diversity candidates.”

The first implies that when evaluating all candidates as whole, there are a range of backgrounds. The second is a kind of uncomfortable othering. The implication is that there are white male candidates and then there is one big bucket of “diversity candidates.” (For my grammar nerds, the difference is that the first phrase uses “diverse” as an adjective and the latter is a noun phrase in contrast with the “standard candidates.”)

That’s quite a bit of nuance for the component of DEI that is most familiar and simplest to enact. In a McKinsey survey last year, most employees reported positive progress on diversity at their company in recent years. In contrast, according to the McKinsey research included in Technical.ly’s Hiring and Workplace Culture Trends Report, less than a third viewed positively their company’s inclusion efforts. It was worse still for the “E” that has become a fixture of the DEI phrase: equity. And almost 75% of respondents viewed their company’s progress there as negative.

That might be why the “E” is still sometimes left out. This idea in particular will get an airing during Introduced, Technical.ly’s annual conference on building better companies, which will take place virtually on May 13. (Early registration for this virtual edition is free here.)

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A lot of people approach DEI as a project rather than a core organizational principle.

In the old debate between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, today equity is commonly used to describe something resembling the latter. The thinking goes that it doesn’t matter if a hiring manager says the opportunity is the same for anyone to apply for a role if the outcome is that mostly only one kind of person ever applies.

One consultant put it to me this way: A lot of people approach DEI as a project rather than a core organizational principle. Put another way, DEI, especially the higher-minded equity bit, is more akin to sales and marketing (the perpetual lifeblood of a thriving organization) than it is to a specific product launch (a time-bound accomplishment).

As my friend and design strategist Michael O’Bryan told me during an interview recently: “Equity is not a destination. It is a process.”

There certainly ought to be targets in mind along that journey.

Diversity consultant Jael Chambers, of consulting firm Cultured Enuf, himself feels that too many workplaces are uncomfortable about using numbers for their DEI goals. Some of that makes sense: We can risk falling into tokenism if blind numbers are set without the rigor to do it well. Chambers, though, says there are rules of thumb. Feelings of tokenism seem to fall away when an organization’s workforce is at least a third of people of color — informed by research from influential scholar Beverly Daniel Tatum. But that needs to show up in an organization’s leadership too.

To get there, Chambers advises small steps. Improve the diversity of your candidate pipeline; track the well-being of current employees. Reach for steps, like a 10% and then a 15% workforce diversity goal. Get specific: Does your team lack Black perspective? Is it a gap in perspective from women or even geography or educational attainment?

How to tell if an organization’s commitment to making gains are genuine? Speed and direction are two different ways to get this wrong: Am I falling behind my peers, or, worse, am I going in the wrong direction entirely? Diversity committees are tools, or traps, depending on the organization.

Chambers says efforts to check and set real goals are a clear sign. Representation should speak volumes. How much can your organization’s leadership speak to the topic?

As O’Bryan reminds: “Budgets are moral objects.” In your budget, you are outlining your priorities. Do you say you care about DEI? And your local community or professional development or anything else? Where does it show up in your budget?

It should be easy to prioritize, O’Bryan cites. Turnover and stress are bad for business. There is “wear and tear on the body” in workplaces where these issues are never discussed, O’Bryan adds.

As O’Bryan put it: “Employers want human outputs without human inputs.” The result, even for white leaders, O’Bryan says is that “we don’t even know what it’s like to be free.”

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