Let’s begin with some definitions. These are my own and based on a historic through (very) recent past application.
Equality: Treating everyone the same and relying on fair systems and individual effort and merit to distinguish the access, privileges, and rewards each person receives.
Equity: Making appropriate accommodations for people from underserved or historically marginalized groups to allow them full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the majority.
Equality vs Equity in our Systems & Institutions
Equality is one of the most espoused of U.S. values. It is embedded in our merit-based educational systems. It is reflected in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” language and attitudes. And, it is the reason so many have believed that “colorblind” is actually the answer to racism.
Equity is also part of the fabric of the United States and represented in many of its most prominent institutions. Medicare, for example, provides federal-sponsored healthcare to people over 65, certain younger people with disabilities and to people with certain kinds of diseases.
Equity in the public school system, according to Center for Public Education, “is achieved when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school.”
The key issue with both of these is that they focus almost wholly on the individual, and, in the case of equity, making special accommodations or provisions per individual or group and with finite resources. This means that the allocation of resources is appropriate given the priorities of the person with the power to make those choices. In public school systems, where the loudest, often most privileged, parents and families have the most influence on school administrators, the pursuit of equity becomes a year-after-year dance for resources.
Equity’s Unintended Consequences
We are now living in a time when equity is being redefined, out of necessity. It’s evident that our behaviors, individually and at institutional levels, have not been working. As a matter of fact, they have caused unintended negative side effects. Contemporary thinking focuses less on the individual to be accommodated and more on the systems within which people need to operate to their fullest potential.
In this model, the individual or group is not seen as having deficits, which are defined as characteristics inconsistent with the norm—white, male, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, not too old and not too young, etc. The limitation of this view is that bias is built into it.
The assumption that the norm is “right” and everyone else must be helped to be “more like us” is privilege at its worst.
De-Bias Systems by ‘Focusing on the Fence’
Focusing on the fence means that a system can be examined for its ability to meet the needs of the organization/community it is designed to serve, and for places where bias is having a negative impact on its usefulness. This work is called “de-biasing systems”.
The work of de-biasing systems requires review of systems and processes all the way to the assumption levels, and again at every stage where a judgment must be made.
Even automated or “objective” systems have built-in assumptions and judgments that are influenced by the lenses of the individuals who created them. It is these places along the process, any process, where bias may appear because all humans have biases and they express themselves even when seeking to be objective.
Let me share a common example:
- Situation: Organization Z does not have women represented at senior levels in numbers that reflect the availability of qualified women to fill those roles.
- Typical Equity Solution: Organization Z creates a high potential program to mentor women into senior-level positions.
- Result: Several years into the program, the numbers of women filling senior level roles have either: a) not changed or b) changed only slightly. Why?
A traditional approach to equity would be to call a team of seasoned leader to look closely at the attributes of each of the high potential women, examining strengths and weaknesses. Some rationalization may surface such as “Well, Mary has been out of the workforce for two two-year stints to have children.” Or, “Sarah hasn’t been able to relocate to different office over the past five years because she has teenagers.” These are fine observations to make but do not typically solve the underlying issue, nor lead to the achievement of organizational goals.
Shifting Our Frame to Focus on Intention
The work of looking at equity from a systems perspective means shifting from examining the women who are or are not getting promoted into senior positions, often seemingly objective criteria and expectations for advancement within the organization. My colleagues and I have often found in our consulting work, language that is embedded in job descriptions, performance goals, and evaluations that, when filtered through all of the humans that are interacting with these systems, have a negative impact on a whole group of people, women in this case.
For example, “X number of years of uninterrupted tenure with Organization Z”, or “Operational leadership experience in a field office and at national headquarters.” Though both of these examples seem objectively able to be applied to any candidate, in reality, women birth children and require time to heal and nurture a new life. Further, women in the U.S. continue to have a disproportionate amount of responsibility for family care and making career sacrifices for the sake of children and family.
De-biasing systems means that intentional, and often tedious, work is being done to review internal systems such as: reward and recognition programs, hiring and promotion process, performance reviews, and committee appointments and structures. Though this approach to equity is still quite new, it is one of the most important opportunities to be pursued for leaders who are truly committed to creating inclusive communities, schools, and organizational cultures.