There is fundamental lack of knowledge about what we mean by equity.
Partly because for decades we have focused on equality. We have espoused the mantra of treating everyone the same. Equal opportunity, no preferential treatment. And indeed, the HR profession as a whole is steeped in that approach.
In relation to racism, there are very few people who are anti-equality. If you ask them whether they believe that Black people should be treated equally, they will wholeheartedly agree.
The challenge comes when you add in equity.
Driving equity in the workforce:
Definition of terms
Equality - The Equality and Human Rights Commission describes equality as: “Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.”
Equity - Equity is about giving people what they need, which specifically addresses the barriers they face, in order to make things fair.
At times, this will mean giving more to those that need: more time, focus, energy and resources proportionate to their circumstances.
It is the equity piece of anti-racism or even traditional diversity and inclusion which causes the most discomfort.
There may be many reasons for this, yet I believe those who are uncomfortable with practicing equity is because they are fearful of being left behind.
They are worried this will give others a head start. Believing that is unfair, therefore when it comes to practising equity there is a reticence in doing anything which could be construed as favouritism or prioritising people because of their skin colour. This contrasts with what equity means, it is about addressing specific issues, for specific communities or individuals.
Discomfort with elevating Black colleagues
“I want to do something about racism but there is no way my board will sign off focusing on Black people. Can you suggest some initiatives which can benefit our other colleagues too?”
Despite my personal feelings when I hear variations of this same statement, my answer is always the same: give more to the people that need it. And it is possible to advance racial equity for the benefit of everyone.
For example, when you create practices where minoritised colleagues are able to share their experiences openly, challenge poor conduct and feel like they are listened to, you send a signal to your wider workforce that they too can do the same.
If you are examining your approach to promotions – not only who gets promoted, but also the systems, both formal and informal, you are reaffirming when other colleagues are promoted, they too will benefit from that same fair approach.
When you conduct an ethnicity pay gap exercise and decide to rationalise pay to lift those who are out of kilter (using a form of job evaluation for example) you can create an infrastructure which means any new hire can trust that they will be paid appropriately for their role.
The importance of taking a specific approach to address a specific issue
It is impossible to truly address inequalities within the workplace unless we delve into the structural racism that is steeped within our mindsets, policies, systems and practices.
You cannot do this with a generalised approach. And you cannot do this by bringing in other marginalised groups – not because it is necessary, but to ensure you are not seen to be prioritising Black people.
When you approach it from that angle, you are prioritising your comfort and perpetuating the same cycle which has been in existence for decades. The unwillingness to fund, design and implement initiatives which address a ‘minority’ because of the lack of perceived benefit for the ‘majority’ is an example of conserving power and maintaining the status quo.
When the marketing department is struggling with customer engagement and brand activation. The approach taken is not to bring in the HR, finance and procurement department and say: “Before we can support marketing, the only way we can do this is if we support you too.” There is no organisation that approaches challenges in this way. Yet why do we take that approach to tackling racism?
Reflect on what equity means in practice
It is critical that as leadership teams and those responsible for the execution and measurement of equity-based practices, we reconcile what equity and equality mean in relation to lifting marginalised colleagues.
You may have to discuss this a few times for the principles to settle in people’s mind and to allow belief systems and value-based judgements to be shared and in some cases challenged.
How often do we delve into the conversations about why some leadership teams struggle with the idea of prioritising the needs of their Black colleagues, knowing the backdrop of social pressure and the vast amount of data which points to systemic racism within society and the workplace?
And finally, if you are reading this as a HR or DEI lead the question you have to ask yourself is: when you share your misgivings with suppliers about how far or not your organisation is willing to engage in equitable practices – do you know this for a fact? Or are you projecting your own discomfort?
And back to this question:
“I want to do something about racism but there is no way my board will sign off focusing on Black people. So can you suggest some initiatives which can benefit our other colleagues too?”
It’s interesting that in all of my almost 20 years of HR experience, I’ve never heard this question posed in relation to initiatives to advance gender representation, to combat ableism or promote more nuanced approaches to neurodiversity.
Shereen Danies is an advocate for anti-racism in business, vice chair of the Black Business Association and managing director of HR Rewired.
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