By: Valerie Ehrlich
Summary: This post explores the day-to-day life of decision-makers in organizations and the opportunities they have to lead with an equity-based mindset. I define equity versus equality, provide a series of questions to use to explore equity issues during the decision-making process, offer examples of how this looks in practice, and reflect on the workplace culture conditions that foster building equity skills amongst all members of an organization.
Standpoint statement: This blog is written from the perspective of a white, cis-het, middle-aged, upper middle-class working mom.
Building our Muscle for Equity
Leading and managing in the workplace in a way that foregrounds equity, diversity, and inclusion (and does so in a way that doesn’t just ‘check the box’) is an incredibly challenging and ongoing task. At CCL, we often talk about it as a ‘muscle’ to build, or a lens to practice seeing the world differently. (However, as the Equity in Education Coalition points out[i], referring to it as a ‘lens’ prioritizes privileged-gaze and implies that, like glasses, it can be taken on and off.)
Personally, I have found that leading inclusively usually comes most naturally to me. I tend to be very relationship oriented and take a mentoring/coaching approach with my team built on warmth, care, and advocacy. Many of the leaders I work with are very similar, and we have created an incredibly supportive culture as a result.
The more challenging aspect of EDI work that I have experienced — both professionally and in settings outside of work — is a full understanding of equity and how to prioritize an equity mindset when considering decisions. It seems that the equity mindset is the most difficult to cultivate, probably the more overwhelming one to deal with (as it nearly always involves power and a disruption of the status quo) and the hardest to adopt in a fast-paced environment. Equity-based thinking requires us to move beyond representation and interpersonal relationship skills and consider the systems and processes we participate in, build, shape, or dismantle. Inequity can be harder to name, and even harder to change because it’s a longer-term goal that we have to have faith we are working toward, even if the results may not be as tangible in the moment.
During a recent decision-making process on my team, I found myself rumbling[ii] with equity and struggling to communicate my thinking in a way that was not only clear for other leaders on my team but helped them build or flex their equity muscle as well. This led me to remember an experience I had a number of years ago in a session facilitated by CommonHealth Action[iii] where we conducted an equity analysis of various policies at our organization. I thought back to the core questions we considered and how practicing with one policy in a small breakout group equipped me with the early skills to begin seeing how we could interrogate all of our policies and practices through an equity framework. In this situation, as a manager with decision making power, I found myself wanting some sort of guide that included equity-focused questions to analyze the situation, provided some guidance for developing solutions, and offered tips for communicating and continuously improving equity work. While there obviously is no equity easy-button, I was searching for a place to get started in terms of how we bring an equity framework to team-level decision-making.
Naturally, I took to the internet to see what I could find to help me articulate my thoughts and get grounded in equity, which was what felt most important at the decision-making juncture. However, much of what I found focused on the education system and the prevalence of equity audits within schools and districts. Other guides focused on community-based equity indicators and tools for addressing racial equity gaps. I didn’t find a lot that adapted these practices and principles to the workplace, in general, and middle-management, in particular. It seems there’s a gap of available resources that situate equity in the workplace and provide actionable steps to take. Moreover, we may find that as we work in organizations where leaders are in different places on their equity/diversity/inclusion journeys that we need some tools to help us work together to have conversations and make decisions informed through equity. As a result, I decided to read through several different guides, compile what I found useful (adapted from several resources cited below) and share some examples of how I have seen this play out.
Defining Equity in the Workplace
Before I get started on the equity-mindset, it’s important to get grounded in the difference between equity and equality. I find the description from InStride useful[iv], especially because it directly relates to the workplace. As they explain, equality essentially involves providing access to the same resources or opportunities across employees, regardless of any pre-existing barriers they might face. As noted, equality can often be beneficial and feel fair at various points in time, but it won’t address underlying problems or an unfair status quo. Equity specifically requires differentiating access to resources or opportunities based on existing privileges. It recognizes that those in different positions of power may need different supports in order to take full advantage of the opportunities present.
Applying an Equity Mindset
So, how do you start building your muscle for equity-based thinking? First, you’ll want to clearly define the issue, challenge, or policy in question. Examples might include: revising parental leave policies, updating reimbursement practices around employee expenses, creating a hybrid/remote-work policy, determining incentive-based pay or bonus allocations, or improving recruitment strategies. The Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at Berkeley Haas provides a robust list of workplace issues understood through EDI which offers a great place to start[v]. Then, you can focus on exploring the following questions (many adapted from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Embracing Equity guide this guide, which focuses on race equity in philanthropy[vi]) to get a clearer understanding of how equity is at play and what factors you’ll need to consider as you come to a decision or develop a new solution or policy.
Questions to ask*…
*You can work through these questions individually, but the information will be limited by your perspective. Ideally, these questions should happen through dialogue within leadership teams. It is a collective journey that will change our systems to be more equitable, so practicing these in dialogue will help foster the equity mindset in your organization.
…When seeking to understand the scope/complexity of the situation:
- Who is most affected by the decision/challenge being addressed? How are people of different social identity groups differently affected by the issue?
- What are the barriers or inequities involved in the issue/challenge being examined? What social conditions or determinants contribute to this issue/challenge?
- Who is burdened the most? Who benefits the most? What compounding dynamics are involved in making that determination (i.e. intersectionality around gender, race, class, etc.)?
- What, if anything, can be learned from prior examples of addressing this issue/challenge? What organizational history is useful to know?
…When working toward a solution:
- How are those most affected by the issue involved in addressing it? Are they “at the table”? How can their voice be heard and their desires amplified?
- What institutions, groups, or departments are involved? What unfair policies or practices are involved? How might these relate to one another?
- What solutions, decisions, or interventions could eliminate the inequities at this time?
- What solutions/decisions could result in systemic change to advance equity longer-term?
…When assessing the impact of the action:
- How will the proposed solution/decision affect each group? How will it be perceived by each group? How will you receive feedback about the impact?
- Does the proposed policy/practice/decision worsen or ignore existing disparities?
- What change do we ideally want? What shared values are reflected in our proposed solution/decision?
- What will be our process for assessing impact, modifying our practice/policy/decision, and revising it, if applicable?
What might this look like in practice? The examples below are hypothetical but offer a way to consider things you might see to address in your organization. Importantly, equity questions should not be asked only when the policies or practices focus specifically on EDI challenges. Rather, equity questions should be asked any time a policy or practice is under review.
- Your organization sets an admirable goal of increasing recruitment of diverse talent and announces a metric to achieve by 2024. Working through the above questions may lead you to determine that:
- Existing recruiting practices are narrow in scope or rely on existing networks that don’t reach diverse talent. Will resources be allocated to advertising across a wider set of hiring sites, or hiring recruiters specifically to help meet this goal?
- Hiring managers will be disproportionately affected. Will hiring managers be supported in managing applicant pools and adjusting their recruiting and screening practices to foster equitable consideration?
- Recruitment is only half of the equation and retention is the other half. What culture changes is the organization committed to make so that recruited talent will feel welcome, valued, and want to stay?
- Your organization hasn’t learned enough from past experiences. Have there been exit interviews or other pieces of data from previous searches to inform the practices that would be most useful?
- Your organization will have to think creatively about how to achieve this metric when representation challenges exist across the field. How will hiring managers need to adjust their screening to account for unrepresentative pipelines and existing representation challenges in the field?
- You need to determine how to track progress and accountability toward this goal. How will the metric be measured and what accountability will be in place if it is not met? How will the organization learn from the success or failure to achieve the metric and how will this learning be shared?
- Your organization commits to more intentionally gathering employee feedback on work culture, strategic priorities, and overall job satisfaction through regular engagement surveys. The above questions may lead you to determine:
- Responding to surveys requires resources (time) and may involve risk for employees. Who will have access to the information and will it be anonymous and confidential? How will the participation level of overburdened employees be interpreted and what incentives will exist to encourage active participation? How will employees perceive the surveys and does that modality meet their preferred mode of providing feedback?
- People leaders need to be prepared to process the results and share with their teams. How will managers be prepared to debrief the information and act on the findings?
- The questions you want to ask may not be addressing the scope of the situation. Who will design the surveys and inform the questions that are most critical to ask? What has the organization learned from previous efforts and what has the process for understanding and improvement looked like (and how did it succeed or fail)?
- Your organization will need to be prepared to act. What are the expectations of those who respond to the survey? How will you act on their feedback? What commitments can you make toward analyzing the data in a timely manner? What risks is your organization willing to take and how will you communicate that?
As you might have noticed, adopting an equity mindset means that you’ll often end up with far more questions that you need to answer before you can fully understand the impact of a policy, practice, or decision. While that can feel frustrating and potentially make it feel like the momentum is slowed down, the flip-side is more dangerous. Proceeding without the information means that, at best, you may enact a practice or policy that doesn’t achieve the most benefit that it could across your organization or, at worst, you enact a practice or policy that actively harms some members of your organization (usually those who are underestimated to begin with).
Asking these questions can feel especially frustrating when a team has already spent a lot of time and a policy has been designed and drafted and then feels like it is being stalled while the equity impact is being considered. This is why asking these questions early and often is another aspect of building the muscle. Personally, I have found that as I engage in asking equity-based questions they become more present in my day-to-day thinking, which means I ask the questions much sooner in the process and I seek the input of varied stakeholders earlier in the decision making process. This allows me to fully consider more suggestions and amplify the issues or considerations that would be most beneficial across stakeholders throughout the process.
Psychological Safety, Transparency, and Open Communication
In my experience, equity-focused conversations are best practiced in dialogue with peers and in a culture that is already committed to psychological safety, supportive of intentional introspection, and open to disrupting the status quo. The questions above require transparent reflection and shared meaning-making that will only be undermined if people cannot speak from their position and on behalf of their teams or other groups at the organization. The process of how these questions are discussed has the power to create momentum toward building the equity-thinking muscle across an organization or creating stagnation, resentment, and potentially harm.
Critically, I have found that equity-focused conversations are important interventions themselves. Organizational cultures and practices are often slow to change and organizations, particularly larger ones, may be very ‘risk-averse’ (and EDI work always involves risk, from those in power as well as those who speak up and show up daily). A narrow focus on the endpoint (achieving a specific decision or solution) will only result in frustration for those wishing to champion equity and see specific changes. And, even though the end result of (in)equitable practices may have measurable outcomes, the subjective experience and perspective on equity in organizations is often quite complex. And, the result of the process used to achieve the metric is equally important to consider. What may look equitable in one group may not translate across teams, departments, or the organization as a whole. Therefore, dialogue around the questions, in an open and psychologically safe manner, offers an opportunity to build the muscle, internalize the questions we should ask, and help others in our organization understand the perspectives of our teams, employees, or other groups.
Finally, as equity depends on the system(s) in which it is enacted, the impact of decisions will be dynamic and ever-evolving. Equity work has no endpoint. What is equitable, or seems equitable, at one point in time may not have an equitable impact or may be influenced by other factors that may also change. This makes the ongoing dialogue even more important, and it also requires that decisions be revisited, analyzed, and revised so that we are continually improving in our goals of creating a more equitable workplace and leading in a more equitable way.