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From Inequity to Opportunity in the Workplace (Author Q+A)

Can equal opportunities exist when we all start at different positions?

Even though people from differing experiences and backgrounds might have similar jobs, it’s important to realize the different types of barriers they had to face to get to where they are and the barriers they will face as they try to develop. That is why it is essential for businesses to prioritize equity over equality, which means actively working to ensure that every individual has the necessary resources and support they need to achieve equal outcomes, rather than providing the same opportunities to everyone.

This International Women’s Day, we’ve asked some of our female authors to share their thoughts about equity, their experience with inequity in the workplace and what actions businesses and individuals can take to embrace it.

What does IWD mean to you? Do we still need it?

Jessica Zwaan: For a young executive woman in the technology space, International Women's Day is an important reminder of the progress women have made in this field, as well as the work that still needs to be done to achieve gender equality. The technology industry has traditionally been male-dominated, but the contributions of women to this field have been significant. Women have played a crucial role in the development of new technologies and have made significant strides in areas such as software development, engineering and design. However, despite these achievements, the gender gap in the technology industry still persists, with women being underrepresented in leadership roles and often facing discrimination and harassment.

Even in a world where women and men see near-perfect equality and social progress, celebrating and acknowledging the divide between the past and the present is crucial. We know, however, that we aren't yet there. Women in business are not adequately represented in leadership, board, founding and decision-making roles within businesses. Further, the biases and prejudice against working mothers, women of colour and trans women continue to affect the working lives of millions around the world. There is still so much work to be done!

Kate Nash: IWD is a wonderful global celebration of effort and talent. And it is a beacon of hope to those women who come behind us. As a young disabled woman back in the 90s I would draw on the stories of success from others. They kept me focused, determined and hopeful. As we get older, we sometimes forget the necessity we had when we were young to seek, and secure, the stories of pioneers. Yes, we still need it – it galvanises us to go further and faster.

Petra Velzeboer: I think awareness days are great as they remind us of how far we’ve come and where we still need to go. I do, however, think that an awareness day in isolation is simply a tick box exercise and we are now in a world where more is required.

Miri Rodriguez: To me, International Women’s Day is a time of celebration and recognition of the many contributions and achievements of women throughout our history and to this day. It’s also a time of reflection to understand the progress and raise awareness about the challenges we still face when it comes to equity and equality. This day is needed to continue reminding the world that everyone has a role to play in creating a more gender-equal world.

Why should businesses shift their focus from equality to equity? And how can they get started?

Jessica Zwaan: Gender equity acknowledges that men and women may have different needs and experiences and aims to provide them with equal opportunities and outcomes. Cis Men cannot be birthing parents for example, and workplaces must acknowledge that the differences in experience require different actions to meet the needs of a diverse team. By creating a workplace that is fair and inclusive for all genders, businesses can attract and retain top talent and benefit from the diverse perspectives and experiences of their employees.

In a strange sense, equality is easy, equity is hard. It requires deeper thinking from the first principles - what is the problem we are trying to solve? Rather than just thinking of the solution and implementing a "catch-all" policy or change. I suggest leaders begin thinking of how they can solve the problems faced by their teams, rather than easy-to-implement solutions.

Kate Nash: The shift, from equality to equity, is critically important. Equality refers to equal opportunity and suggests that the same levels of support are required for all people, regardless of difference or opportunity. On the other hand, equity goes a step further and reminds us that we are individuals and need varying levels of support to achieve goals. This can be especially true for women with disabilities where we often need an accessible environment to get our foot in the door. It is the “base camp” of the journey.

The best way to get started is to write a short strategy and then invite those people most impacted by inequity to comment on and improve it. Learning directly from your own people can be the most courageous, challenging and successful thing you can do. Employee resource groups have a strong role in this.

Petra Velzeboer: Equality is giving the same opportunities to everyone, equity is supporting people with a starting point below the average with the skills, networks and stepping stones to allow them equal opportunity.

Having targets around equality can be useful; however, your strategy should be about offering the building blocks to enable minority groups to actually be able to access the opportunities on offer. When it comes to women, this could include flexible working options, childcare support and promotion opportunities that work within the many barriers women face so that they are able to offer value.

If workplaces were equitable, what impact would that have had on you during your career?

Jessica Zwaan: One of the biggest positive changes for me has been flexible working in terms of location and time. I'm a writer and speaker outside of my day-to-day COO role, and that work brings me a great deal of personal joy and fulfilment. The equity to allow flexibility has been a blessing for me, but for many working parents, carers and students - this is something which is a requirement almost to have an equitable chance at leadership and progression.

Kate Nash: The biggest impact that equitable workplaces would have had on my career would have meant I could have considered applying my skills and talents for roles other than being a ‘change-maker’. Who knows, I could have been a phenomenal finance director, a fashion designer or a publishing editor!

Instead, the inequity I observed around me fuelled my career in social change. The injustice that I, and so many of my contemporaries, faced, meant I was motivated to do something about it.

In your opinion, why do organizations struggle to tackle inequality?

Jessica Zwaan: It's not easy. It's hard to create more custom solutions to real problems, to develop narratives around why, and to communicate those effectively. HR teams are strapped for resources and often have economic pressures.

Kate Nash: While progress can feel slow at times, I do not frame the continued need to address inequity as organizations ‘struggling’ – instead I see the challenge as one of individual choice. That is the choice made by individuals to not take personal, and extreme ownership in understanding what single, or group of actions, they will take in their careers to address gender or disability or any other aspect of human inequity.

If we reduce the ‘struggle’ to that of faceless organizations, we insult ourselves with the knowledge that we have the power to change some situations. In certain cases, we have the power to change many situations. Making the simple decision to mentor a young disabled woman graduate is to tackle inequity.

Petra Velzeboer: Many companies simply don’t see the problem. If you don’t see the problem, how are you going to put resources into solving it? So, the first step is always awareness. The best way for awareness to be raised is if the culture is already psychologically safe – this means it’s ok to openly discuss experiences and work together to find solutions.

While an organization may put resources into Diversity and Inclusion or wellbeing agendas, they then have to tackle the much bigger systemic barriers to getting this right at work – habits, generational trauma, stigma, power structures and how hiring and decision-making occur across all levels. This is of course much harder to tackle but with awareness, genuine discussion and authentic steps we can get started.

What actions can we all take to embrace equity?

Jessica Zwaan: Listen to marginalised groups, really listen.

Kate Nash: My top three actions we can all take, to embrace equity, are:

  • Offer yourself as a mentor to a new graduate who is impacted by inequity. Take it upon yourself to undertake some reverse mentoring as part of the experience. Ask the open question to your mentee, for example, “what do I need to learn as a woman without a disability, to help me in my role as your mentor?”
  • Tell your team, that you want to hear one great story each month, about how someone in their team has undertaken a project or an action that has built a more equitable world. Share openly that you are looking for practical, replicable ideas that will enable women facing barriers imposed by inequity to progress their careers – and then keep reminding your teams that you are looking for those stories.
  • Share your story of career progress – the highs and the lows – share it openly, generously and unflinchingly. The story of equity will change if we are able to draw out lessons from our own lives.

Petra Velzeboer: It’s important for each of us to be brave and learn about other points of view and experiences. No matter what group you are in, it’s imperative that we all lean in and try to understand where other people are coming from.

For example, just because I grew up in a blended Black and white family doesn’t mean I am an authority on Black experiences. It means I have had one experience and my siblings have had another one. This means I too, need to ask questions, challenge assumptions and learn. If we are to make real, lasting change we all need a little more bravery in our questions, empathy in our understanding and activism at all levels of business.

Miri Rodriguez: We all have a role to play in gender equity. It’s important we make commitments to driving equity by educating ourselves, sharing our stories and addressing any barriers when they arise. This is a responsibility we all carry not only at the individual level but at the collective one as well.

About the authors

Jessica Zwaan is the Chief Operating Officer at Whereby, a video meetings company. She’s the author of  Built for People.

Kate Nash is a change leader and the creator & CEO of PurpleSpace, the world's only professional development membership hub for disability employee resource groups. She’s the author of  Positively Purple.

Petra Velzeboer is a renowned mental health expert, speaker and CEO of PVL, a mental health consultancy. She’s the author of  Begin With You.

Miri Rodriguez is an award-winning and globally recognized storyteller and Senior Storyteller for Future of Work at Microsoft. She’s the author of  Brand Storytelling.

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