What IS Equity?
A recent conversation with a leader focused a spotlight on systemic bias. “I want to treat everyone the same,” said a CEO. “I don’t see color.”
Getting to the point of treating everyone the same—which is what we mean by the word equality—feels like a worthy goal. But something doesn’t add up.
Due to structural and systemic issues, the starting point for one demographic has always been different from the starting point of a different demographic. Because of this, leaders need to be cognizant of what each member of their organization needs in order to be able to achieve.
The word “equity” is familiar to most of us. Some of us know it as referring to the value of shares, and others know it can also fit into the context of diversity and inclusion.
It gets tossed around in boardrooms, included in big presentations and noted in requests from employees and students. It appears in magazines, books and newspaper articles.
And yet, people often struggle to understand equity. It is nearly the same, on paper, as the word equality. But while equality dictates that each person receive the same amount of resources, equity helps us know that people need different things to succeed, even if that means uneven distribution of resources, time, or support.
The confusion over this concept goes beyond understanding the meaning — and reaches into understanding how to apply it. What does it look like when an organization is equitable?
Crucially, the leaders recognize that some people have always been given a larger share of resources than others, but that larger share was defined by the time and attention that a dominant, majority group provided those who most resemble them.
When a request for equity is made, it is largely an effort to undo those practices and to give time, support and resources to people who have historically not gotten them.
A popular graphic by Craig Fohle, right, explains the difference by depicting three people of different heights trying to see over a fence while each standing on a box. By giving the shortest person two boxes, resources are distributed more effectively.
(This graphic has been expanded upon many times, which you can read about on the website Cultural Organizing.)
Fundamentally, the practice of equity forces us to examine the range of unique competencies and contributions each person brings to the table.
Everyone has different strengths, and part of the job of an inclusive leader is creating an environment in which they are free and empowered to tap into those strengths. When someone says that they “don’t see color” or race, it undermines the need for equity. Recognizing the challenges faced by different demographic groups is part of the journey toward equity.
The following are some of the best practices IBIS has found in equitable organizations:
- Managers required to provide written justification of their promotion decisions.
- Records maintained on managers to track the demographics of who they promote.
- Records maintained on managers to track the demographics of who they do not promote.
- Specific goals established regarding the number or percentage of diversity promotions.
- Specific goals made public regarding the number or percentage of diversity promotions achieved.
- Focus is on the top competencies needed for the vacant position based on the job description.
- Interviewers informed about the DEI goals of the organization.
- More than one interviewer is required to be present in the interview room to create the opportunity for multiple assessments/interpretations of candidates.
- Each candidate is interviewed by more than one person.
- Up-to-date job descriptions for all roles at all levels; role, responsibilities, tasks, competencies, and essential KSA’s clearly stated.
- KPI’s for individuals’ contributions to team/group projects.
- All employees taught the paths to advancement for all positions; this information is easily available and accessible.
- Access provided to professional development training, and it is mapped to the competencies for all positions in the organization.
- Career advancement supported through multiple pathways for skills and knowledge acquisition rather than through a single prescribed path.
- The compensation, bonuses, and promotions of managers are tied, in part, to how well they retain employees from underrepresented demographics.
- Organization sponsors/funds programs and organizations that serve people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Organization partners with non-profits that create opportunities and advance the rights of underrepresented populations.
Taking steps towards these changes can effectively undermine systemic bias and contribute toward real and sustained change.
Shilpa Pherwani, the Principal of IBIS and a leading expert in diversity and inclusion, has been guiding global organizations for over 16 years on leveraging diversity as a business advantage. An organizational psychologist by training, she partners with organizations to effect sustainable organizational change by conducting cultural assessments, developing comprehensive strategic diversity action plans, and designing compelling and interactive classroom-based and online training.
Cedar Pruitt is a Senior Consultant at IBIS specializing in leadership and culture that allows everyone to thrive, whether it’s at a competitive university, mid-size financial firm, an innovative start-up, or something completely different.