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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity

Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

And what’s needed to normalize and uphold equity in your company's culture

A multicolored abstract image to represent equity and equality
Photo courtesy of Tools for Motivation

When it comes to improving a workplace to better support all people—disabled people, people of color, queer people, women, trans and nonbinary people—there is a lot that needs to be done. But what to call the values of fairness that employers should work toward?

While the words equality and equity sound similar—and share etymological history—they differ in key ways.

“They can be thrown around and used interchangeably, but when it comes to disability, it's important to differentiate,” says Shain Neumeier, a disability justice advocate and attorney.

The difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’

“Equality is the idea that because everybody has the same worth, everybody deserves the same treatment. But equity is the idea that everybody has the same worth and therefore they deserve to have treatment they need in order to be their best selves,” Neumeier says.

So while equality might mean that an office building has one door with stairs that everyone uses to get in and out, and no one is treated differently, equity requires considering everyone’s needs and abilities, explains disability justice advocate and consultant Lydia Brown. Many people might require a ramp to enter the building—someone who uses a wheelchair, or who is 8 1/2 months pregnant, or has cerebral palsy, or whose job requires them to carry heavy materials, for example. It’s not equal treatment for some people to use a ramp and others to use stairs, but it’s the equitable treatment that’s necessary for everyone to show up and do their work.

Andraéa LaVant, a communications consultant and inclusion specialist, says an equitable approach to ensuring access to the office building includes considering a person’s ability to even arrive at work.

“Did I have access to a wheelchair-accessible vehicle to get there, did I have the funds, did I have access to public transportation and the resources to get there?” LaVant says. “The equity conversation is all of the pieces that it requires for me to really be on a level playing field even in that building.”

Achieving equity in hiring

Equity in getting through the door of the building may mean job benefits such as fully subsidized employer transit passes, but it can also mean asking questions about who is able to get in the metaphorical door and why. The U.S. is a country that has a long and ongoing history of racism, sexism, and violence against disabled, queer, transgender, and Indigenous people—in policies, laws, and societal norms. Past discrimination creates real inequality that shapes our society today. An equal and color-blind treatment of all potential employees can reinforce these harmful historical patterns, leaving out plenty of qualified and capable candidates. Erasing or ignoring historical and contemporary oppression in hiring is not equitable.

Companies that ask about a criminal record on the initial job application or that require the employee to own and operate a vehicle can often deter people from applying who would add both talent and previously unheard perspectives to a workplace. Given the racism embedded in the criminal justice system and the costs (and physical ability) necessary to own and operate a vehicle, screening candidates by whether they have a criminal record and whether they own and operate a vehicle can result in removing many applicants of color and disabled or low-income applicants.

Employers that encourage disabled people to apply—and have candid and open-minded conversations with applicants about the requirements of the job and the work-related needs of each employee—are better-equipped to create conditions that enable both disabled and non-disabled people to thrive in a workplace.

Read more: How to Write a Job Description for the First Time

Normalizing equity in the workplace

Of course, once employees are hired—and are inside the metaphorical office building—a framework of equity is crucial for ensuring that all employees are working under the conditions in which they can succeed. Companies that provide plenty of paid time off, sick leave, flexible work schedules, telework options, and paid family medical leave are putting the systems in place that can best support employees who are parents, disabled employees, employees who are caretakers for a relative, and many others. 

And another huge step is creating a culture and power structure within an organization that enables and facilitates employees having a say in their own working conditions.

It’s possible to have a company with unlimited paid vacation days, but where it’s rare for employees to take advantage of the opportunity. The culture within a workplace—whether it’s a high-pressure environment with big stakes for missed deadlines, leadership that didn’t hire enough staff to accomplish all of company’s workload, or management that doesn’t have an effective system of task allocation—is an often overlooked piece that can make or break the experiences of disabled employees and so many others.

Read more: Unlimited PTO: As Good As It Sounds?

While the concept of equality assumes that everyone has the same needs, practices of equity involve asking employees their needs and making space for everyone to share how they work best.

“Normalizing the concept of having needs is important so that it doesn’t single disabled folks out,” LaVant says. “When we start a meeting, everyone goes around and talks about their access needs. Anybody can have access needs—if you come into a meeting with a migraine that day, you may need to close your eyes. You might need to have your camera off if you’re taking care of a kid. It’s not just disabled people who have access needs.”

Upholding equity through company culture and buy-in

Another key to creating a culture that moves a company toward equity is giving power to employees who hold marginalized identities.

Kalyn Wilson is the CEO of Dream Forward Consulting and specializes in HR and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consulting. Prior to owning her own business, she often met resistance when bringing attention to equity issues as a staff member at companies.

“A key facet of leadership is the ability to listen and hear and the ability to empathize and consider a variety of solutions. I don’t know why we have so much respect for consultants and not our coworkers who we see everyday,” Wilson says.

While DEI consultants and even internal DEI specialists can be useful, if an organization or company is committed to equity, all staff—especially those in leadership roles—need to be involved with working toward an equitable environment.

“Transformation has to be internal to some degree,” Neumeier says. “If your company does things one way 364 days per year and has a training on how to do it differently one day per year, it’s not really going to change institutional culture.”

“It's so important for people who are in positions of power to know that the only real way to change conditions is in fact to shift the lines of power,” Brown says, adding that power could be held because of identity (e.g. white man) or factors like longevity at a company. “If the same people have had power in the same ways forever, they need to give up power and give it to those who have never had power.” 

*Editor's note: Some people prefer the language “person with a disability” to describe themselves. Others prefer “disabled person.” This article has used the identity-first language of “disabled person” throughout because of some  sources’ preferences. Always ask a person their preference.

About our sources

Lydia X. Z. Brown is an advocate for disability justice focused on addressing and ending interpersonal and state violence targeting disabled people at the margins of the margins. They are Policy Counsel for the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology; Director of Policy, Advocacy, & External Affairs at the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network; Founder and Volunteer Director of the Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color's Interdependence, Survival, & Empowerment; and Adjunct Lecturer in Disability Studies for the Department of English at Georgetown University.

Shain Neumeier is an advocate for disability justice and an attorney. Their legal and policy work has focused on issues of institutional abuse and neglect, civil rights violations, and emotional abuse. Neumeier has done policy and litigation disability rights work about guardianship, Medicaid policy, education and public accommodations. Neumeier also testified before the United Nations special rapporteur on torture about abuse in youth residential centers. As a speaker and trainer, Neumeier has presented for groups including Gates Foundation, Yale Law, and Amnesty International.

Andraéa LaVant is founder and president of LaVant Consulting, Inc., a social impact communications firm that offers cutting-edge corporate development and content marketing for brands and nonprofits. LCI’s specialty is helping brands “speak disability with confidence.” Prior to establishing LaVant Consulting, Inc., she led disability inclusion efforts for Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital. She currently serves as the impact producer for Netflix’s feature-length documentary, Crip Camp, where she is charged with leading the campaign’s efforts to promote understanding of disability as a social justice issue and build across lines of difference. 

Kalyn Wilson is the founder and CEO of Dream Forward Consulting. Wilson has led Diversity & Inclusion efforts at large companies, in addition to other jobs including elementary school teacher. Wilson is currently pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Adler University, studying the presence and impact of employee development programs targeting Black males in for-profit organizations.

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