Why Equal Opportunity Doesn’t Translate to Equal Outcomes

Equity requires curiosity, attentiveness to each other and immense maturity. Sharing abundance requires a deep inner security. True leaders will go beyond their own stories of achievement to also acknowledge that the structure was built to be more conducive to some.

A tall person with long arms is able to reach the jars of cherries in the back of the top shelf of the cupboard. A shorter person cannot. But with a stool, the shorter person could do it. Giving both people a stool would be to treat them equally, but the tall person doesn’t need it. Giving both people nothing would be to treat them equally, but the shorter person is no closer to reaching cherries.

That’s two equality-based solutions that fail. So here’s equity. Giving only the shorter person a stool allows them to reach the jar, and creates the same access to cherries that the tall person always had. Though they were not treated equally, now the opportunity to reach the cherries is equal. Nobody is, any longer, at an inherent disadvantage. 

Until now, access to the cherries was biased upon how the physical characteristic of height interacted with the kitchen structure (that was made for and by tall people). Height, incidentally, has nothing to do with either the ability to eat cherries or preference for eating them. But imagine that because it's always been easier for tall people to reach cherries, everyone had come to associate cherries with tallness. Culture had begun to believe that tall people are naturally predisposed to cherries and even better cherry eaters! This pattern had gone on so long that it was unusual and uncomfortable to see shorter people eating cherries. If you want cherries, either be tall or act tall. 

The association is arbitrary. Height and cherries have nothing to do with each other. Both access and inclusion have been accorded simply based upon the structural bias and who benefits from it and that becomes the societal norm which, in turn, becomes an implicit association, upheld by repetition and circumstance. 

Equality vs Equity 

When it comes to accessing opportunity, equality means each individual or group are given the same resources or opportunities, regardless of barriers, circumstances and age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other demographics.

For example, marriage equality means that any couple should have access to marriage by law, regardless of sexual orientation. When people say equal pay for equal work, they mean an hour is an hour in a position, no matter what race or gender you are. And going with a blind resume screening is one blanket approach of creating more equality at the first hurdle of mitigating bias in hiring. In some interventions, equality works. But equality approaches can quickly create more inequality - treating the needs of one employee (usually majority) as the default for all employees - without noticing the structural gap in reach for some. 

Equity is focused on interventions that create more equal outcomes, not equal treatment. Equity  recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the necessary resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. While majority groups benefit from current processes, equity accounts that those with less access, specific disadvantages and obstacles may need more intentional support to take fair advantage of those opportunities. Equity not only acknowledges disadvantages, but also differences to the socialized ‘norm'. Equity is more complicated and nuanced, as it considers impartiality and fairness, and takes into account the historical and sociopolitical factors at play. Equity provides the intervention that levels the playing field to provide fairer opportunities for each individual to advance and fulfill their potential.

Equality is painting spaces in a parking lot so that each space fits one car. Equity creates spaces up front for those with physical disabilities. Equality gives everybody the same amount of time to complete a work-related task as part of the interview process. Equity allows extra time for people with dyslexia to take in the instructions or also provides them verbally. Sometimes companies provide equity to fill in the gap where the law fails to provide equality. While not all employees have access to marriage, employers can proactively make family health insurance available to same-sex couples.

Getting to the Root Causes of Inequity

To get to the root of inequity, we have to recognize our social systems were built to serve some more than others. They are rooted in practices and beliefs  designed by default to benefit the majority groups who first had access to them and have, over time, resulted in discriminatory outcomes.. Systemic racism, for example, is a complex web of individual and internalized biases, interpersonal dynamics, institutional policies, practices and culture, as well as structural systems and norms. So is systemic sexism. 

Focusing on equality of outcome is an approach that raises questions beyond social injustice. For example, success as an outcome may look different for each person. But a compelling argument is that equality of outcome must be seen as a “key measure” of equality of opportunity (or lack thereof). Wherever systems have resulted in vastly unequal outcomes that are in plain sight, it’s clearly indicative that opportunities are themselves not equal.

Consider leaders in business and leaders in politics. Just because everyone has a theoretically “equal opportunity” to run for office does not mean that all candidates have an equal opportunity to win. Just because two people started on the same day with the same Harvard MBA degree does not mean they had equal opportunity to advance. And then consider the fields like education, health, learning and PR that are female-dominated at entry level. The opportunity to lead is clearly not equitable as evidenced by the inverse relationship of the gender ratio among those that reach leadership levels. In other words, way more is at play than personal agency in seizing opportunity. 

To identify where inequity of opportunity persistently exists, look where unequal outcomes have become the norm. And just as the outcome of strongly disproportional representation in leadership reveals that access and opportunity are not equitable, so does the outcome of disproportionate exodus by certain groups from their workplace.

Towards a More Equitable Workplace  

To build a more equitable workplace, you have to start listening attentively to people. Believe people when they share the reality of their experience as it pertains to your workplace. 

With research into your workforce, you can monitor and measure where unequal outcomes are pointing you to inequitable dynamics and differing experiences of your workplace (at each checkpoint in the employee lifecycle). Let both your data outcomes and your employees inform you! Having the data takes out the debate.

Build more equitable practices into your recruitment and hiring process, so that the first hurdle doesn’t limit your cultural diversity. Create accessible job descriptions that allow any qualified candidate to view themselves in the role. Hire for skills, experience and ability more than a preconceived notion of degrees and career trajectory. 

Make sure that company incentives are inclusive and flexible. Allow for flexibility in work-life effectiveness approaches to fit with different kinds of lives. Conduct a pay equity analysis and create transparency around pay and wages equity and take the biased disparities out of the shadows willingly. Make physical spaces accessible and do the inexpensive accommodations that make it more workable for different individuals.

Educate your workforce that equity-based interventions do not provide an unfair advantage; they level the un-level playing field and make up for what underrepresented groups are not receiving organically. For example, formal sponsorship is one intervention to get women and BIPOC people an opportunity on the leadership escalator that has benefited white men for decades.   However, be advised that the disruption of a pre-existing advantage that people have become accustomed to as the default system can cause skepticism and resistance. 

Creating more equity in performance reviews and promotions is fundamental, as is supporting executive leadership opportunities for diverse candidates,not just the DEI C-Suite positions. Provide learning and development opportunities that are accessible to everyone;  notice when there is not equal participation and  investigate the barriers.

Equity requires curiosity, attentiveness to who is missing,  and immense maturity. It is not about taking away from any group but ensuring equitable support to all. Sharing abundance requires a deep inner security. True leaders will go beyond their own stories of achievement to also acknowledge that the structure was built to be more conducive to some. Otherwise   “cherries are for tall people” - and we don’t believe that is equitable, anymore. 


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