What is Equity?


I’d like some Equity with that Diversity and Inclusion!
by: Dr. Salima Bhimani, Founder, Chief Executive Officer; Head of Research, Consulting and Education


Brimming with pride and joy about moving into an executive position after many years of hard work climbing the proverbial company ladder, Zara couldn’t wait to get started. Her appointment was part of a larger initiative in the company to gain more women in leadership positions. Her first team meeting went like this:


Once Zara was officially welcomed by leadership, the agenda turned to business. As this portion of the meeting progressed, she noticed a pattern. Male colleagues spoke over her and wrongly rephrased her words by stating, “I think what she is really trying to say…”


During the break she received jovial comments such as:


“I didn’t ever think we’d be sitting at the same table.”


“You know, you won’t be able to take time off for girly issues now. Time to toughen up lady.”


“ I guess this is a ‘win’ for your people, huh? Congratulations!”


Thinking this day was just an anomaly Zara believed that this could not possibly be the norm. But as months passed, the pattern held: “Have fun. Lighten up” she was told. “Prove you’re worthy of this position.” “It would be a serious step back for all women in this company if you become an example of what everyone is already thinking.”


While outperforming her colleagues and seeing them “borrow” her ideas, after 6 months she was “asked” to return to her former position and gently told, “This is just not working out and we really want to make sure that your skills and knowledge are in the right place within the company. This move is about valuing you Zara!”


The “E” in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)

As institutions try to welcome people into roles traditionally closed to them, and attempt to value their ideas and skills, too often scenarios such as these are framed as issues about diversity and inclusion. Left out of the analysis is equity. This is generally true in the growing popularity of D&I approaches in institutions, whether corporate or educational. Experiences such as Zara’s and others like it are about diversity in so far as they point out the social identity of the persons involved, in this case a young brown woman. They are about inclusion in so far as they reflect the way a person is truly welcomed or valued, in this case displaying the opposite. What these concepts don’t help us identify are the systemic and cultural discrimination, exclusion and lack of fairness that people face. These concepts don’t help us name, understand and change the existing multi-layered problem. This is where equity comes in.


Omitting Equity

By making diversity and inclusion the focus, institutions have affirmed a positive stance to address the gaps and blind spots in their practices and policies. It feels better to talk about being diverse and doing inclusion because it is about adding, celebrating and honoring. Equity feels heavier and harder because we must face what is not working. It points out systemic problems such as institutional sexism and racism.


Consequently, in the last decade especially, we have seen the replacement of the language of equity with diversity in the focus of institutional offices and programs. In this move, I have heard people say, “We want to be uplifting in our approach. Focus on what we are striving for. Look forward, not back.” Perhaps. But this move is also about looking away from the task of changing systems, relationships and cultures, that in all honesty many people find daunting and don’t know how to do. As institutions have distanced the connection between diversity, equity and inclusion, they have also obscured legal, moral and social accountability, creating serious gaps in how far we can go. If our goal is to really change how we work and who we work with, then the relationship between DEI and what this relationship asks of us must be part of our conversations, plans and approaches.


Three strategies to start making the connections between diversity, equity and inclusion


Do you understand barriers?

Barriers from the perspective of DEI solidify imbalances of power by giving access and opportunity for some to flourish, while presenting explicit and implicit obstacles to others. In Zara’s case she faced assumptions about her capability and worthiness right from the start. This set up conditions in which she had to work against failing rather than fulfilling the job she was hired to do, making it very hard for her to prevail. Dismantling barriers and shaping equity requires courageous looking. So start asking: who faces barriers to opportunity and success in our system? Why? What are the characteristics of these barriers? What are the frictions and possibilities in removing such barriers? Articulating concrete steps in building an equitable system indicates to employees, staff and stakeholders that as an institution you have a layered investment in DEI.


Is your institutional story a human story?

Every institution has a story about who they are and how they do business. This is called the official story. Official stories about diversity and inclusion are often linked to a company’s success and achievement. Official stories however don’t often reflect the messy reality of truly being on the DEI path. Present a more pluralistic story about where your institution is and where it is going with DEI. This shows the humanness of your system and reflects a spirit of openness and vitality. Real commitment to processes with responsible action is what people find hope in.


Is your vision interconnected with social accountability?

Accountability from a DEI perspective means overtly talking about the relevance of anti-discrimination and human rights laws and regulations. An institution’s case for DEI should be part of a larger societal impetus to not recreate historical injustice. This shows a sophisticated conceptualization of why fairness, inclusion, and equity are imperative. By shaping a working eco-system that models the best of human relationships and dynamics, you exemplify the ethical fortitude of your institution. This not only benefits your bottom line but also creates public trust and admiration.


Figure out what DEI means in your institution

There is no quick fix to realizing diversity, equity and inclusion. At Relational, we know that each institution and community must figure out what this means for them. As you start the process of understanding the relationship between these three concepts in your institution, share your story with us.

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