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Equity in the Workplace

What exactly is Equity?

“Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion” (DE&I) has been increasingly making its way into news headlines as of late. This relatively new term is an expansion of the term “Diversity & Inclusion” (D&I), which has been around for quite a while. But what do these words mean and why are they becoming combined in terms? To keep it simple:

  • Diversity is what makes us each unique. The word “diversity” is diverse itself and can be defined in many ways. When the word diversity is used, people may be talking about skin color, gender identity, political view, religion, thought leadership; the list is endless.

  • Inclusion is the sense of belonging. It is celebrating our uniqueness with one another. It is the feeling of being empowered to come as you are, regardless of whether that is different than the majority of the group.

While “Diversity & Inclusion” is a great start to fostering a sense of belonging, the addition of “Equity” is crucial to cultivating a truly diverse and inclusive environment. Here’s why:

  • Equity is being fair and impartial. It is providing the appropriate tools and resources to set everyone up for success. It is the fair treatment of all, regardless of our differences and unique backgrounds.

You’ll notice in that last sentence I said, “It is the fair treatment of all” not, “It is the same treatment for all”. Equity is not the same as equality. These terms are often treated interchangeably, but there is an important difference between the two that is worth noting.

Treating people equally doesn’t always take into account where a person started. A common way to explain equity vs. equality is the ladder metaphor. If I provide everyone with the same exact ladder (equality) to see over a ledge, I’m not accounting for everyone’s starting height. In order for everyone to see over the ledge, I need to provide the appropriately sized ladder to each person, taking into account their starting heights (equity). Equality is providing everyone with the same tools; equity is providing the right tools and resources to the right people to set everyone up for success. Equality is what we hope to achieve as a steady state in the long term; equity is what we need to in order to get there.

How does this translate to the workplace?

Decades of privileged treatment has led to certain groups having inherent advantages over others, leaving a sizeable and systemic gap across different populations. This inequity has seeped into almost every facet of life, including the workplace. In the US, marginalized groups have been largely excluded from the high paying “good jobs” in our economy for the majority of history.

Today we continue to feel the effects of a white male dominated business environment that was considered the “norm” not even 30 years ago. Due to this previously institutionalized “norm”, it takes active and intentional effort to make the changes required to promote equity in the workplace. Without putting in the effort, our workplaces will fall back into the status quo which serves only those in the majority.

Fostering an equitable workplace requires employers to provide resources that are in alignment with each person’s specific starting point. With an equitable workplace, employees will feel supported, and have the associated success. They will feel they are a part of the team and will be easier to retain as they achieve success. They will feel excited to bring their full selves to work, and energized in supporting their company’s mission.

Without an equitable workplace, employees will not feel included, becoming frustrated that while they are giving their best, they are somehow falling behind those that have appropriate levels of support in both performance and compensation. These employees will spend their days feeling frustrated and not heard rather than pouring their efforts and energy into furthering the mission of the company. Eventually these employees will leave, having not been given the appropriate chance at success.

Oftentimes, the issue of inequity leads to errors in organizational critical thinking like false cause: The company has incorrectly identified the person as the cause of underperformance, when in fact the company hasn’t provided the proper support for the person to succeed. This first error in critical thinking then leads to another: Since only people with this background and profile are succeeding, we should only hire and work to retain people with that background. This error in critical thinking leads organizations to a conformed workplace instead of a diverse workplace.

Creating an equitable workplace

So how does an organization ensure it is fostering an equitable workplace? How can a company gauge if it is meeting their people’s needs and meeting them where they are uniquely at? How can a company make sure they are setting up ALL of their people for success?

To create a truly equitable workplace, company leadership must be willing to:

  1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable - To affect real change, company leadership needs to perform the sometimes-difficult task of true introspection. While most organizations claim they value DE&I, a vast majority are falling short in actively promoting DE&I internally. In order to take the necessary steps towards change, company leadership needs to confront the hard truth that if they’re being honest, they aren’t achieving their goal. Is what we’re building and fostering at this company truly equitable for all employees? Unfortunately, often times the answer to that question is no. The first step to solving a problem is being brave enough to acknowledge you have a problem that is worth fixing.

  2. Confront privilege from all angles - Systemic inequity in the workplace usually does not stem from just one area. In order for marginalized or underprivileged groups to gain equity, leadership needs to be willing to put all processes and procedures under the microscope. Whether it’s recruitment practices, promotion plans, compensation efforts, or year end review processes (to name a few), leadership must take a hard look at whether one group is being favored over another based on the way things are currently being done.

  3. Be ready to invest - To improve DE&I in an organization, companies often need to break down what’s been built on a shaky foundation of historic inequity in order to build up a stronger, more inclusive environment. This does not come cheap. Leadership must be willing to put in time, resources, and money to actively promote DE&I in the workplace. Through creating committees, spending time with employees, seeking expert consultation, and performing valuable studies companies will see over time how these ongoing efforts can serve in identifying and closing gaps in equity, and their employees and bottom line will thank them in the long run.

Here at Athena, we are celebrating our one-year anniversary of creating a women owned business on a foundation of fostering a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable environment for ALL employees. Come join us on this journey!


Ready to take the next step? Pay equity audits should be an annual exercise to proactively identify and remediate pay equity issues. At ATHENA, we have designed a robust proprietary model which takes into account demographic-neutral variables (i.e. level, tenure, etc.) and identifies pay equity issues across an organization's population.

For more information about ATHENA Equity Analytics, check out our one-pager below, visit our website, or book a free discovery call.

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