Embracing equity in the workplace

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by Jennifer Friesen-Gow

This year, women are giving themselves a “hug”. No, it’s not about loving ourselves, although we should, and it’s not about self-care, although it is about care. Women are embracing equity. The goal is to get people talking about why equal opportunities aren’t enough!  

So what’s the difference between equality and equity? Equality emphasises same treatment. It’s about giving everyone the same resources or opportunities to reach outcomes. While that may seem fair, people don’t start from the same places in life. Equity recognizes individual differences and allocates the resources and opportunities required to reach the same outcomes. 

The goal is equality, and International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate what has been achieved. In Canada, first wave feminists like Nelly McClung won women the right to vote and to own property, but vocational choices were limited, and motherhood was still considered their main role. In the 1960’s and 70’s, second-wave feminists, feeling constrained by the limited choices available to them, asserted their rights for equal opportunities in education, work and politics. Arguably, this wave was initiated primarily by and for white middle class women. Although it drew inspiration from the civil rights movement, it did not necessarily benefit women of colour as much.  

If the first and second waves were concerned with equality and levelling the playing field through legal rights and protections, the third wave regarded issues of race, social class and transgender rights as central. Areas of focus were how society shapes gender identity, especially through the media, and freedom to express one’s authentic gender identity. 

Both equality and equity are important. The assumption underlying equal opportunity is that individuals or groups given the same information, access, and resources will achieve the same outcomes. However, we all know that some people have advantages by virtue of their background, education, socio-economic status etc. that others do not have. Those at a disadvantage are therefore much less likely to achieve the same outcomes. A little girl who is hungry cannot perform as well in school as the girl who had a nourishing breakfast.  

In fact, same or equal treatment may unfairly disadvantage a group. Traditional hiring practices, for example, can be exclusionary. According to a recent study of companies in the United States, more than 80% of job postings include a four-year degree requirement. That automatically excludes 76% of Black Americans and 83% of Latinx workers. What about women who are economically disadvantaged? This reality makes it difficult for otherwise qualified Blacks and Latinx workers to gain access to meaningful work and significantly reduces an employer’s ability to build a diverse workforce. An equitable alternative is to focus on skills-based hiring practices. Identify the competencies actually required for the job, the ones that a four-year degree is assumed to provide, and determine where training can be provided. 

A study in 2003 showed that applicants with “white sounding” names received 50% more call-backs for interviews than applicants with “Black-sounding” names. An equitable practice is to use blind resumes.  This means removing information such as name, address and gender that might unconsciously bias the interviewer. Since many large employers use sophisticated applicant tracking software, this task is not so difficult to do.  

Equity recognizes that people are naturally unique, and may require different resources or opportunities according to their particular needs and circumstances. One size does not fit all. Creating spaces where women can come together for coaching in small groups across roles and levels, to mentor, connect and support each other, and build leadership skills is another way to build an inclusive workplace. Other ideas include:

– Provide opportunities where people can learn about common types of biases that women face at work – including race, sexual orientation, disability, or other aspects of their identity. Most people who were raised in the “inside” group are unaware of the advantages that they enjoy by virtue of their circumstances.  Simply listening to understand may help uncover an unintentional bias and possibly generate solutions to challenge it. 

– Flexible work schedules – the ability to re-arrange one’s schedule around responsibilities for child care can been a huge advantage for working parents, and caregivers who incidentally are most often women.

– Ensure that the language used in job descriptions, emails, policies, during interviews and in day-to-day communications is gender neutral and avoid gendering inanimate objects is another example of an equity initiative.

These are just a few ideas for creating workplaces where women, and indeed all people, can thrive. You might start by asking yourself, what are the advantages, gifts and benefits that I have that I might use or leverage to help others? If you are employed, inquire about your company’s recruitment, parental leave, and pay equity policies. If you are retired or not seeking work, support women-owned businesses and leadership programs for girls and young women. We can create workplaces that are fair, just and equitable for all.

Jennifer Friesen-Gow is a retired human resources and organizational development professional.

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