When you give something a name, it can change everything.
Loosely imagine what a workplace culture might have been 50, 60, or 75 years ago. You might be picturing a workplace where workers were comfortable with the idea of “working your way up,” or “paying your dues,” or “being thankful for a good job;” people found a job and stayed for a career and a pension. Those ideas were paramount to defining a career path and identifying a good hire.
Then we identified problems in that workplace culture and gave those problems names: sexism, misogyny, racism, harassment, abuse of power. Giving those problems names enabled workers to talk about those issues and demand change—and workplaces did change through new policies and practices in hiring, promotion, and protecting workers.
As time went on, however, American business leaders and workers realized those policies weren’t enough. Attitudes and atmospheres were still hostile. Racism and misogyny still existed subversively. Workplaces and school settings of the 1980s preached tolerance in their attempts to battle racism and hostility.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, teaching tolerance evolved to teaching diversity. Instead of “tolerating others,” diversity taught us to “appreciate and seek others.” In the mid-2000s, diversity led to a more nuanced idea of inclusion. In 2011, the Chief Diversity Officer of Kroger, Reuben Shaffer, described diversity and inclusion to me as, “…diversity is about creating the mix of people, and inclusion is about making that mix work well together.”
In very recent years, a new word has entered the discussion, and it has changed everything: Equity. If diversity is about the mix of people, and inclusion is about making that mix work, equity is about the responsibility of those in power to allow for diversity and inclusion to actually happen and for workers to thrive at work and in life.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article titled, “What the Heck does Equity Mean?” (Stanford University, Putnam-Wakerly, Russell, ssir.org/articles/entry/what_the_heck_does_equity_mean , 2016), where the authors clearly break down definitions of diversity, inclusion, equality and equity, and how they differ from one another, According to the authors, equity “… is about each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed — access to opportunity, networks, resources, and supports — based on where we are and where we want to go.” This explains that business leaders must recognize that different groups of people, and even each individual, may require different and unique support structures and systems in order to actually have an equal opportunity. A common way of visually describing equity vs. equality is to say that equality is giving a team of workers each a five-foot ladder to reach a shelf, and equity is recognizing that the shelf is 11 feet high, and some workers will need a 6-foot, or even a 7-foot ladder and then giving them those ladders.
Now that we have the beginnings of an understanding of equity, let’s get to the important question: “Why does equity matter to business owners and leaders?” The answer: because equity matters to workers and consumers. Equity is now a singular word workers, candidates, and consumers can use to describe a whole host of workplace problems around disenfranchising marginalized workers and barriers to real opportunity. And it gives those workers, candidates, and consumers the power to hold business leaders accountable more easily.
Candidates are asking about equity during interviews. Workers are asking business leaders about equity with pay, promotion, benefits, scheduling, working conditions, expectations, and more. Investors and consumers are seeking information about organizations’ policies and metrics on equity and letting their findings determine where to spend or invest their money.
In August 2021, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released a report detailing worker sentiments leading to the high numbers of resignations across many industries that American businesses are experiencing right now. (pwc.com/us/en/library/pulse-survey/future-of-work.html) Leading the list are four focuses of the equity conversation: compensation, benefits, opportunity, and work-scheduling/work from home flexibility. This should show business leaders what matters to workers right now.
If you’re a business leader or owner, recognize that the word equity has given people in general, but especially workers, an ability to demand change in a way that is galvanizing workforces social expectations across America. Understand that the PwC findings are describing real market forces at work right now and that equity work can be a business advantage, an investment in your people and future. Learn more about equity yourself to understand the structures and damage caused by inequity—that alone will likely drive you to action.
Derek Pangelinan owns Derek Rey Consulting LLC. He is a management/leadership coach for small and medium business owners all across Oregon and Southwest Washington. He runs a variety of workshops to help them build their teams and improve communication and commitment in the workplace.