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Erica Snyder

Global Gender Affinity Group Deputy Chair

When speaking about gender in the workplace, we often hear the terms “equality” and “equity” used interchangeably. Because the International Women’s Day theme this year is Embracing Equity, it seems like an apt time to discuss the difference between these two very important, yet distinct, words before diving into tangible actions we can all take to promote gender equity every day. 

To understand equity and equality, we must also discuss the concept of fairness. Fairness means treating people according to their individual needs. Because equality is centered on sameness, what’s considered “fair” isn’t necessarily “equal” simply because we are all different. Where equality assumes we’re all starting from the same place, equity allows us to better address fairness by providing adjustments to accommodate imbalances in our society. Therefore, we must first focus on equity to attain equality.

Okay, now that we understand the goal, what can we do about it?

Gender inequity is complex and not rooted in any single issue or resulting outcome. The real gap between our current reality and the ideal society we strive for, as women or really any underrepresented group, is filled with historically condoned discrimination, overlooked microaggressions and dismissed biases. Digging into how these experiences—whether unintentional or deliberate—have shaped our female population today in order to identify ways to make real, impactful change can sometimes feel like an uphill battle and can become quite overwhelming when viewed as a whole. While there are certainly large-scale challenges that must be addressed, many of the most commonly discussed solutions (e.g., pay transparency, fixing the broken rung in leadership advancement, hiring candidate pools) can feel beyond the sphere of influence many of us actually have. However, I believe we have an opportunity to address these deep-rooted challenges through individual actions that collectively promote and reinforce gender equity.

I once read that the key to diversity and inclusion lies in five key attributes: self-awareness, curiosity, courage, vulnerability and empathy. When I think about the work that needs to be accomplished to reach gender parity, I realize almost every large-scale initiative to that end is rooted in one of these qualities, though I would also add just one more: engagement. So, what would happen if we put these attributes into tangible actions everyone could practice every day? I imagine it could make a pretty effective impact on real progress towards a more equitable world.

  • Step one: Increase self-awareness. Self-awareness is the only worthy ally we have in addressing unconscious and implicit bias. We must be able to identify our own sources of bias in order to consciously correct our thoughts and actions. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test. There are several options depending on the type of biases you want to identify. You do not have to share your results; you only have to be willing to accept them. Once you’ve identified where your biases lie, you have succeeded in making the unconscious, conscious—and from there you can choose to be more deliberate and thoughtful in your everyday interactions.
  • Step 2: Be curious. Curiosity allows us to learn and grow a great deal. Affinity bias, for example, is quite common in the workplace—meaning we often choose to associate with others who are like us (the same gender, race, background, etc.), often alienating us from ideas and thoughts different from our own. Step out of your comfort zone and find opportunities to interact with those who have an alternative perspective—this is a really great way to create innovative solutions to almost any problem! Sit next to someone new at the office or take a moment to ask how the other person is doing the next time you join a conference call, and here’s the key—really listen to what they’re saying. Respectful dialogue and genuine interest in other people’s experiences helps improve empathy and understanding.
  • Step 3: Have courage. Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes, courage is simply coming to work as your full authentic self to help create safe spaces for others do the same. Other times, courage is speaking up on behalf of yourself or others, whether it’s to call out injustice or give voice to those who have been ignored or dismissed. However, it’s important to note that courage doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive to be impactful. You should always consider your own psychological safety when practicing courage. It is common for people to feel intimidated when initiating conversations about diversity and inclusion but avoiding these topics for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing only results in missed opportunity for growth. Be willing to make yourself a little uncomfortable in order to grow, and the rewards will inevitably outweigh the risks.
  • Step 4: Be willing to be vulnerable. This one can be difficult for many people, especially in the workplace. Vulnerability in itself takes courage, but it also tends to have a domino effect. That is, opening yourself up allows others to do the same. Women and other underrepresented groups often experience unfounded, though perfectly understandable, feelings of self-doubt and incompetence (i.e., imposter syndrome) regarding their achievements in the workplace. Acknowledging that we all experience moments of self-doubt, feeling overwhelmed and other insecurities (yes, even in leadership roles!) requires vulnerability; however, the willingness to share our experiences with others can create more authentic connections, release stress and help our colleagues feel less alienated. Overall, embracing vulnerability as a strength (rather than a weakness) results in stronger, more resilient teams. Likewise, vulnerability is an essential component of being a good ally. Acknowledging what you don’t know but are willing to learn can be a very powerful tool in building trust and empathy and improving employee experience.
  • Step 5: Embrace empathy. First, we need to understand there’s a significant difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy runs the risk of belittling the emotions of those who have experienced microaggressions or discrimination, while empathy focuses on understanding and sharing the emotions someone else is experiencing without judgement. Often, gender stereotypes (for both men and women) are at the root of inequity at work—including assumptions around a person’s intelligence, ability, likability, or notions about what a leader ‘looks’ like, who will need more time away from work or who will make a more compassionate leader. By removing these assumptions from our thought processes and actively working to see the world through the eyes of others, we enable increased opportunities for women and underrepresented groups in leadership positions. Practice active listening and really work to understand the world from the lens of those around you. Empathy builds and enriches communication and is a key component of effective leadership. It can also improve company culture, furthering hiring and retention efforts.
  • Step 6: Get engaged. Engagement is the opportunity to put individual actions into collective progress. Affinity Groups, or employee resource groups, provide safe spaces to connect with others who have similar experiences. Often these groups are consulted in larger business decisions, allowing you to have a more significant impact on equity in the workplace. Women and other underrepresented groups also frequently struggle to identify and create mentor and sponsorship relationships, which can further restrict opportunities for professional development and advancement. Offering to mentor or sponsor someone, or even make the connection to a more appropriate mentor or sponsor, can make a significant difference in someone’s career and further increase their opportunities for advancement.

The bottom line is we can all lead by example through our conversations and actions at work. Putting these attributes into practice allows us to acknowledge our privileges and use them to elevate others. When our individual actions combine, we have the power to influence gender equity within our teams, companies and communities. Even more, when we support gender equity, we see our people thrive in an environment where they are valued for their merit, not identity, which benefits everyone through balanced workload, improved employee experience and better client representation—ultimately improving quality of life for all.