Equity vs. Equality: A DEIB Advisor Explains the Difference

What is the difference between equity vs. equality?

Contrary to popular belief, equity and equality are not synonyms. Both words are often used interchangeably, when in reality, they mean very different things, especially in the context of the workplace.

Although the concepts of equity and equality may sound similar, how they are implemented can result in drastically different outcomes for underrepresented groups and individuals. While equitable workforces are often associated with equal hiring practices, it goes much beyond just that.

Equity vs. Equality

In short, equality should be the goal of a workforce while equity is the means to get there.

Equality is the state of being equal in status, rights, and opportunities. This refers to making sure individuals or groups of people are given the same resources or rights to opportunities. Equality means that all employees are given equal benefits, standards, training, and opportunities in the business. Although this may appear to be a smart inclusion strategy at first glimpse, decision makers must recognize that not all employees start from the same situation.

Equity, on the other hand, is defined as the quality of being fair or impartial and just. This refers to not only support and resources given to an individual but outcomes as well. Equality sets the foundation of creating an equal playing field while equity levels out the playing field by identifying disparities to ensure everyone has what they need to achieve success.

In viewing everyone strictly as equal and nothing more, you’re not being equitable. Employee-specific needs are neglected when everyone is treated exactly the same.

All employees ought to experience empowerment and feel valued, which would be a representation of equality. Everyone needs to feel supported, respected, and of equal value in your organization. Opportunities for advancement, training, further education, benefits, and more must be equally accessible to all individuals. If your company, or any company for that matter, has put in the work and established equality in the workplace and culture, that’s great, but it does not mean that equity is automatically present.

Workplace equity comes when a company identifies an individual’s needs and obstacles based on ethnicity, race, gender, gender identity, disabilities, and other factors. Once those needs are identified, they must be considered in decision-making related to inclusivity and diversity in the workforce.

Equality should be about giving everyone the same exact resources, whereas equity is about allocating those resources based on every individual’s needs.

Examples of Equity and Equality

With a better understanding of equality vs. equity, let’s identify different ways they can be integrated into the workplace.

The most prominent examples, especially in today’s market, is equality and equity in the context of employee accommodations.

Most commonly, employees with disabilities, mental health conditions, language barriers, medical conditions, and others often need specific accommodations. Equality would be the fact your organization or leader simply made the accommodations available to those who qualify. Equity would make sure an individual has everything they need to reach the same level of success as someone who may not need accommodations.

For example, if one of your team members has a medical condition that limits their ability to be in the office every day, they may request to work from home for a couple of days a week. Providing the flexibility to that employee to work a hybrid schedule would allow them to reach their full potential and achieve success in their role. Not every team member will need that same accommodation to reach their full potential. The fair and reasonable accommodations leveled the playing field for that specific employee.

The equity pertains to the specific, individual needs, while equality was the desired outcome in that everyone had a level playing field once those accommodations were made.

Another example is skills-based hiring.

Some individuals may not have access to higher education, but if they possess the necessary qualifications for the job, this should not prevent them from finding employment. Put an emphasis on skills and prior job experience in your hiring process rather than just specific degree requirements. (Largely focusing on degrees shrinks your applicant pool anyway.) If your company has a workforce development program in place, you have the unique opportunity to give individuals that do not have a degree the resources, support, and guidance they need to grow in their career. Those with degrees may not need this resource as much as those who don’t have a degree, but you’re being equitable in offering it to those who need it, resulting in a even playing field for everyone in the organization.

To visualize all of this, the illustration below from the Interaction Institute for Social Change provides a simplified visual of equity vs. equality. It shows how these two concepts work together to achieve the desired goal.

Equality was giving everyone a box to stand on. Equity came when the boxes were allocated so everyone could see.

Make Equity and Equality A Focus At Work

Creating and implementing long-lasting, impactful change is not always as simple as following a step-by-step playbook. It takes dedication, intention, and plans of action. Your workforce is one that cares about these sorts of issues and topics, too.

Regardless of what your current challenges are related to DEIB in the workforce, you must start somewhere to move the needle from where you are now. Every organization has the unique opportunity to brand itself in a way that showcases who they are as a company.

Do you want to be known as the company that pioneers change and become the new standard? Organizations differ in many ways, like in their day-to-day operations, values, missions, goods, or services offered, company size, philanthropy, and community involvement. But in my opinion, creating and maintaining a diverse and equitable workforce should be the standard and bare minimum expectation–not optional. With the understanding that some organizations already have great DEIB strategies and practices in place, others may not or don’t know where to start.

Whichever it may be, we can always grow and evolve as leaders and as organizations. It starts with the willingness to learn and change. I want to provide some insight on ways your organization can enhance and improve equity and equality in the workplace, more specifically aimed at the HR leaders, executives, and any other hiring manager level or above.

Tips for Improving Equity and Equality

It is imperative employers understand the weight these two words hold in terms of how their organization operates. It goes beyond just hiring diverse individuals and teams. In order to achieve success and truly integrate change and improve equality and equity in the workplace, organizations have to look past the surface level and put in the work to create the change with effective practices.

Hiring managers, HR professionals, and any personnel involved in hiring or implementing policy and standards in a company need to be mindful that diverse individuals are not there for you to check a box and look good on paper or to hit quotas to say the organization is promoting DEBI efforts. This only adds to the problem.

Before any hiring manager or employer tries to attract diverse talent for their organization, ask yourself, “Is my interview process inclusive to attract the best talent?” Then, once these diverse individuals are hired on:

  • What are you (as an organization and individually) doing to retain these diverse individuals?
  • What internal policies, resources, and or support groups do you have in place to support these individuals?
  • How are you ensuring the workplace is an inclusive and equitable environment with equal opportunity for all?
  • Do HR, executives, and all levels of management understand what biases are and how it impacts a team?
  • Do you and management know how to manage a team of diverse individuals?

These are just a few questions that will help an organization identify what organizational gaps need the most attention when trying to improve equity and equality in the workplace.

Next, start with some basic tips.

1. Dig Deep Into Different Types of Diversity

Leadership should be trained in dimensions of diversity beyond gender and ethnic diversity and into things like generational diversity, neurodiversity, ableism, and tokenism. This will help leaders become fully equipped and educated on how to create, maintain, and lead a diverse team without bias.

2. Practice Inclusive Communication

It would also be beneficial for leaders to be trained on inclusive communication to mitigate macro- and micro-aggressions in the workplace. Inclusive communication helps build trust within the workforce, too.

3. Know What An Inclusive Workplace Looks Like

In addition, leaders need to be educated on what anti-racism, advocacy, and allyship look like in and outside of the workplace and understand the possibilities of how this can affect one’s day-to-day either positively or negatively.

While education and training play a crucial role in creating a diverse and equitable workforce, representation is also key, especially in leadership. Having representation from the top down promotes equity but also ensures employees have a viable career path with upward mobility.

4. Allow Spaces For Diverse Individuals to Meet

Beyond that, employee resource groups (ERGs) are important in the workplace. These are support groups integrated within your organization that allow diverse individuals to meet, openly discuss issues, formulate initiative, and, ideally, be able to make suggestions to leadership with how the workplace can improve.

Photo of a diverse group of people all smiling. Title: 5 Reasons to Offer Employee Resource Groups

Equality and equity in the workplace may not always be the simplest to navigate, but when your organization effectively promotes and supports a diverse and equitable workforce, the benefits and success are undeniable.

There are several case studies that show putting time and effort and intentionality into cultivating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce has its benefits, in that it:

However, companies and leaders cannot be complacent or do the bare minimum to reap the full benefits of both equality and equity in the workplace.

Education, intention, and commitment are the first few stepping blocks to help your organization improve and bridge these gaps and ultimately create an equitable environment for all individuals.

Companies that Practice Equity and Equality Well

There are several organizations in today’s world that incorporate and promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace successfully.

Mastercard was ranked in the Top 2 companies for diversity while also ranking in the top 10 percentile for several additional diversity categories including Top 3 companies for Board of Directors, Top 6 companies for Asian American Executives, Top 8 companies for sponsorship, Top 10 companies for LGBTQ employees, and Top 12 companies for executive diversity councils. They also clearly define their vast DE&I efforts, including the statement, “We believe in an equitable world,” as a top priority.

Other companies on lists like these include:

  • DOW
  • Ecolab
  • Allstate
  • KPMG
  • Toyota
  • Progressive

Companies like Mastercard are setting the stage for what the standard should be around DE&I in the workforce and the vast benefits it brings to an organization. These companies lead by example and have played an important part in closing gaps for individuals and underrepresented groups.

While there is always progress to be made, creating seats at the table to have open dialogue on ways to cultivate and enhance an inclusive environment is a simple first step in enacting positive change for a more equitable workplace.

In An Equitable World, Justice Matters, Too

Now that you have learned more about equity vs. equality in the workplace, it does not stop there. The intersections of issues centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion are much deeper than just the workplace.

Take racial equity for example. Racial equity is a process of eliminating racial disparities and improving outcomes for everyone. It is the intentional and continual practice of changing policies, practices, systems, and structures by prioritizing measurable change in the lives of people of color.

As I mentioned above, Mastercard is one of the leading organizations when it comes to creating more equitable and inclusive workplaces. But they also commit to driving change outside of the workplace, as well. They’re one of several large corporations that have intentionally allocated millions of dollars in an effort to advance racial equity.

President Biden has also recently signed several executive orders to advance racial equity by enacting policies that advocate and promote training focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The federal government has been obliged, among other things, to address historical racism in federal housing policy and to prohibit the Department of Justice from utilizing private prisons. The order acknowledges the foundational, systemic issue.

Governments at all levels (federal, state, and municipal levels) have enacted discriminatory laws that have led to segregated neighborhoods and hindered many Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American families from achieving greater financial prosperity. The order then issues a call to action to put an end to discrimination, help individuals who have been the victim of discrimination in housing, and promote diverse and inclusive societies. The work is far from over, but we are taking steps in the right direction.

Be the Change

I challenge you to take a moment and try and understand some of these issues referenced in this article from a different perspective outside of your own. Consider what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes, specifically those individuals who have been directly impacted by these inequalities and injustices.

Ask yourself what you can do to make a positive difference. Saying nothing is contributing to the problem. Doing nothing is contributing to the problem. Being complacent is contributing to the problem. So why not contribute to the problem in a way that will make a positive impact? Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Need help finding diverse talent? Contact Us


Brandon Means is an account manager, regional DE&I advisor, and ESG lead at Insight Global’s Houston office.