Understanding Equity and Equality

By Tracie Daniels, Synergy Consulting – February 1, 2022
Understanding Equity and Equality

Understanding the differences between equity and equality can lead to transformational change in the workplace.

Often the concepts of equity and equality are used interchangeably. Recently, there has been a shift towards distinguishing between the two. Generally, equity is understood through contrasting with equality. We have all understood equality to be the state that we are pursuing as a country, even as a world. Phrases such as “all men are created equal,” “equality for everyone,” “equal rights,” and even “equal pay for equal work” have created this notion of the need for equality. To a large degree, equality is just that: a notion, an aspiration, and maybe even something out of reach.

There are two parts to how we understand and socialize equality. The first is the notion that one group should not be considered better or worse than another group. The second is the belief that all people, no matter how different, should be treated in the same manner.

The first element of understanding equality is rooted in historical references as to how this country was shaped, which led to a preferential treatment of one group over other groups, i.e., majority over minority. The group that has the larger representation was considered dominant, and therefore held the power and authority to enact laws and systems that benefited the majority. Many of these systems still exist today.

The second element of understanding equality is the notion that all groups should be provided the same opportunities. Unfortunately, this cannot be realized because of the aforementioned historical structures and systems that have been established to favor the majority group over the minority. Equity, however, can serve as “the great equalizer.”

The National Academy of Public Administration defines equity as “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy.”

Equity is understood as the provision of varying levels of support to meet the unique needs of different groups to achieve greater fairness in outcomes. Equity seeks to correct the systemic failures that have led to some groups achieving exponentially more than other groups. To keep applying the system of equality or “same treatment” will give more to groups that already have more — and thus widen the opportunity and access gaps. Instead, equity requires a redistribution of the management and provision of resources to address the historically unmet needs of the minority groups and give all groups the opportunity to meaningfully engage in society.

Changing historical laws and creating new laws based on equity have proven to be significant in the advancement of fairness in the country. For example, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed by Congress in 1990 was instrumental in providing access and resources to support people with disabilities. The ADA instituted requirements around workplace accommodations for people with disabilities like access ramps, larger elevators, and appropriately-sized bathroom stalls. Imagine how it must feel to show up for a job interview and not be able to enter a building because there are no ramps, only steps.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin or other protected groups in multiple facets such as hiring, promoting, firing, use of public accommodations, and federally funded programs. It also strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools. While this was a huge step in changing the laws, there’s a considerable amount of work to be done in shaping the individual workplace policies and practices to be equitable. Even though the Civil Rights Act has been in place for almost 60 years, workplace racial, gender, sex, age, and disability discrimination still occur at an alarming rate.

There is a concept in human resources management called disparate impact and disparate treatment. Disparate impact involves a specific course of action, such as a policy, procedure or practice that unintentionally discriminates against a protected group. For example, an organization can have a recruitment process that unintentionally eliminates Latinx applicants from the final interview phase. Another example of disparate impact might include a promotion policy that results in a 90% promotion rate for male managers, but only a 30% promotion rate for female managers. It does not matter if the employer did not “intend” to discriminate if the outcome is discriminatory.

Disparate treatment is the overt discriminatory treatment based on protected groups. An example of disparate treatment is requiring a transgender employee to use the restroom based on their gender assigned at birth, rather than their gender identification. These types of covert and overt discriminatory practices are still very prevalent in the workplace, which is why there is a need for equitable policies and practices.

The reality is that it will be some time before all of the laws that have historically impacted protected groups are eradicated or changed. However, organizations have the power and authority to determine how equity is applied within their employee practices and policies. A number of organizations are intentionally making the shift by examining their policies and practices to determine how every employee, particularly those who have historically been denied access and resources, can achieve success.

Tracie Daniels is president of Synergy Consulting, a human capital management consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and executive management, diversity and inclusion, organizational assessment and design, performance management, and leadership development consulting. She can be reached at tracie@synergyconsults.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Virginia Society of CPAs.