The difference between equity and equality and why it matters
Every year on International Women’s Day, I reflect on how far women have come in the workforce compared to my mother’s generation and the advances I hope we will make by the time my children enter the workforce. In contemplating this year’s theme, “Embrace Equity”, I realized how much I have focused on equality in the past, so this felt like a timely opportunity to shift the narrative. I am passionate about DE&I and have invested significant time educating myself on this important topic – how had I not addressed gender equity? Do people understand the distinction between these related terms?
What is the difference between equity and equality?
While the terms equity and equality may sound similar, the implementation of one versus the other can lead to dramatically different outcomes for marginalized people. Equality is about giving everyone the exact same resources and opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person or group has different circumstances and allocates the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. In other words, equality is the end goal. Equity is how we get there.
Consider the image below:
We have been taught to seek equal opportunities, but the unintentional result can be exclusion rather than inclusion. Equality sets the rules for creating a fair playing field, but equity ensures everyone can compete on that field. The same bike doesn’t fit everyone and in order for each person to ride, we must give them the bike that fits their needs.
Gender equity is critical to furthering the progress necessary to achieve gender equality. Giving women equal rights is not enough to tackle existing inequalities in the workplace; while we have made progress, it slowed during the Covid-19 pandemic which disproportionately affected women. The 2022 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report states it will take 132 years to gain gender equality –in 2020, that gap was set to close within 100 years. There are still far more men than women in leadership positions across a range of industries which is only amplified if you focus on women of colour. We need to do better.
The Business Case for Gender Equity
Diverse workforces thrive in an equitable work environment – where accommodations are provided based on each team member’s specific needs. Organizations with diverse workforces perform better because society isn’t homogenous, and neither are organizations’ customer bases or addressable markets. Beyond the obvious fact that it’s the right thing to do, there is a clear business case for companies to achieve gender equity. People work better when they are part of diverse businesses; according to the World Bank, productivity can increase by up to 40% when discrimination against female employees is eliminated. Businesses that commit to closing gender gaps enjoy increased profitability, returns on equity, productivity and innovation; a greater ability to attract and retain top talent; a better brand and image; and revenue gains. Research shows that for every 10% increase in gender equity, businesses see a 1-2% increase in revenue. Further, companies with the largest proportion of women on executive committees brought in a 47% higher rate of return on equity than those with no female executives. A survey by Morgan Stanley found that 66% of high-net-worth investors believe it’s important to invest in companies that hire and promote diverse employees. And if the business case wasn’t already clear, gender diversity also contributes to improved morale, better teamwork, increased employee satisfaction and a stronger reputation.
What is the current state?
In 2021, Canadian women made 89 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made. Canada is doing slightly better than the US where in 2022, women made 82 cents for every dollar men made. This disparity is showcased in McKinsey’s 2022 study on Women in the Workplace, which confirmed that women continue to be underrepresented at every level of the organization, with women of colour being the most underrepresented, lagging behind white men, men of colour and their white female counterparts. The study found this to be especially true at senior levels of leadership where only one in four C-Suite leaders are women, and only one in 20 is a woman of colour. Other notable observations include:
- Women are less likely to be hired into entry-level jobs than men, even though they currently attain more bachelor’s degrees and have the same attrition rate.
- As employees advance in their career, the disparity increases – there is a “broken rung” at the first step to manager that is holding women back. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 87 women, and only 82 women of colour achieve the same promotion. This creates a vicious cycle since there are not enough qualified women to promote from within.
- More female leaders are leaving their organizations – at the highest rate we have ever seen and at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. For every woman at the director level who is promoted, two female directors are choosing to leave their company.
Organizations need to take action to address gender equity or they risk not only losing their current female leaders, but also the next generation, as the McKinsey study found that “young women are even more ambitious and place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive and inclusive workplace. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.”
3 goals your organization can adopt to create a more gender equitable work environment
Organizations can take action by putting practices into place that promote gender equity in order to make meaningful and sustainable progress towards equality. The McKinsey study suggests focusing on two broad goals: getting more women into leadership positions and retaining the female leaders they already have. I, respectfully, would like to add a third goal – engaging men in the gender equity discussion.
1. Attracting More Women to your Organization
Organizations should evaluate their current recruitment processes to ensure they are inclusive. How are managers identifying candidates for jobs? If they are solely relying on their personal networks, that can materially impact the diversity of the talent pool due to homophily, or people’s tendency to seek out others who are similar to themselves. Are job descriptions using gender neutral language? Research has shown that women are less likely to apply for a job if the ideal candidate is described with traditionally masculine language such as competitive or aggressive. Are all the qualifications listed truly necessary? One example is education – do you truly need an MBA or a CFA to be successful in this role? We know systemic barriers have prevented marginalized groups including BIPOC, disabled and neurodivergent individuals from accessing education thus disqualifying potentially qualified candidates before the organization has even met them. If qualifications are a nice to have but not truly core to the role, remove them.
Once organizations start assessing applicants, there are several ways in which unconscious bias, particularly gender bias, can impact the selection process. Awareness is the first step in assessing candidates impartially which can be facilitated through education – any employee who has a hand in hiring talent should receive unconscious bias training, which should include gender bias training. Those responsible for reviewing resumes and conducting interviews should be diverse – not only to ensure a diverse slate of candidates but because interviewers are a reflection of their organization and interviewer diversity sends a message to candidates about what they can expect the organization to look like. Further, an organization’s recruitment process needs to be structured and focused on role specific job criteria. In a report, the International Labour Organization noted, “Structured interviews ensure candidates are evaluated according to relevant and pre-determined criteria related to work performance.” Evaluating candidates in this manner reduces gender (and other) bias and ensures the candidate selected is the best one for the job based on merit.
2. Retaining Current Female Employees & Supporting Their Career Development
There are several actions organizations can take to ensure attrition rates, particularly of women, remain low. Organizations need to set gender equity goals and hold their leaders accountable – goals should be tied to leaders’ annual incentive, they should be transparent and they should be reported publicly. While consistent DE&I training is a good start, the McKinsey report suggests offering more targeted and action oriented training to better equip managers to support their teams. Organizations should examine their benefits to ensure they are offering flexible and supportive benefits which are improving women’s working experience. Some examples include funded daycare, flexibility in how and where we work, mental health support, equitable maternity and paternity benefits, flexibility to care for aging parents etc. In addition to effective Employee Resource Groups, organizations should ensure formal mentorship and sponsorship programs are provided and that women are given equitable development opportunities and exposure.
For example, a great deal of business still takes place on the golf course playing a sport that lacks diversity. According to the National Golf Foundation, in 2021 women and people of colour only made up 25% and 21% of recreational golfers in the US respectively. While it’s obvious that anyone – regardless of gender, race or upbringing – could enjoy and excel at golf, it isn’t surprising that not everyone shares the same sense of comfort, confidence or belonging on the golf course. But if you don’t play, you risk missing out on opportunities to socialize with senior executives, meet new clients and attend business events. Diversifying these types of social activities can help support a more equitable and inclusive work environment.
With respect to performance reviews and promotions, organizations need to revisit their current processes and take specific targeted steps to address inequities that currently exist. This includes determining where the largest gap in promotions for women currently lies and addressing it, conducting pay audits at all levels to assess gender wage gaps and rectifying any that are uncovered. The Harvard Business Review aptly stated that, “Organizations that establish themselves as top destinations for female employees by taking stands on gender and racial equality, leading on flexible and remote work arrangements, transparently pursuing equal pay, and demonstrating creative solutions to quality childcare will win the war, while companies that cling to 20th-century workplace norms will disappear. Never has there been an easier time to capitalize on a competitor’s tone deafness and poor agility.”
3. Engaging Men in the Gender Equity Discussion
It goes without saying that all genders are essential to making progress towards gender equity, but without male allyship and advocacy, current efforts will not be enough. Research shows that one of the best ways to engage more men in gender equity initiatives is to disprove the zero sum bias that disincentivizes their participation. And while zero sum thinking has been invalidated by the data, men still believe they will have to make sacrifices in order for women to make gains. The narrative needs to shift from the current state where women advancing means they are taking a bigger chunk of the pie at men’s expense to one where gender equity is mutually beneficial – the business case is clear that organizations who commit to closing the gender gap see significant gains that result in an expanded pie with more for everyone.
We have made significant progress on gender equity in the workplace, but if we truly want to #EmbraceEquity, there is a long road ahead. While this article focused on gender, I would be remiss if I did not address other groups who are also striving towards equity in the workplace and who just as urgently need our commitment and support breaking the barriers they currently experience based on neurodivergence, race, socioeconomic status, age, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc. The bottom line? Creating an equitable workplace that allows each team member to thrive and that celebrates diversity across all facets breeds teams that are better at problem-solving, innovating and who achieve better financial results. I am hopeful that as a society, we are working towards a future where, by the time my children enter the workforce, the need for gender equity won’t be a topic of discussion, because it will be the norm.