Equality vs Diversity vs Equity: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

In 2023, the terms “equality”, “diversity” and “equity” have a complex set of connotations. For many, the terms describe the positive attributes of a modern, fair workplace. But for others, they may be viewed as corporate buzzwords unthinkingly inserted into company policy. The terms are often used interchangeably — but they hold distinct meanings and implications, and so should be separately understood in order to appropriately action a commitment to each idea.

Understanding the distinction will help you to implement initiatives that successfully promote inclusion within your organisation. Consultants from EW Group explain that “equality training and diversity training often go hand in hand, but they are not exactly the same.” Additionally, “equity” as a third term is increasingly being discussed as a separate construct worth understanding. 

So, grasping each concept is the crucial first step towards fostering a more inclusive and harmonious workplace, and more broadly, society.

Here, we’ll unpack the definitions of equality, diversity and equity, their significance in the workplace, and the efforts being made to promote them.

Understanding equality

Equality refers specifically to the state of being equal in status, rights, and opportunities. It encompasses the idea that every individual should have access to the same resources and treatment, regardless of their background or characteristics. On the other hand, inequality manifests when certain groups face discrimination based on personal factors or protected characteristics. According to Valent Group, some of the top-cited reasons for workplace discrimination claims are:

  • Disability
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Religion

For example, one prevalent example of inequality is the gender pay gap, “an equality measure that shows the difference in average earnings between women and men.”

Legislation plays a central role in upholding equality. Laws like the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the UK’s Equality Act of 2010 serve as guidelines for preventing discrimination and promoting equal treatment. These are not just legal tools, but societal decrees that emphasise the importance and value of treating all individuals fairly and without prejudice.

The importance of equality in the workplace

In the workplace, equality may be ingrained into the company culture with zero-tolerance policies against discrimination. Human Rights Careers suggests that these policies may include:

  • Fair hiring practices
  • Transparent and equal pay for equal work
  • Accommodations for religious holidays or flexible working

Unfortunately, various barriers to occupational equality still exist, such as unconscious biases during hiring, lack of access to promotions for certain demographics, and workplace harassment. To address and mitigate these challenges, companies are increasingly implementing equality training programmes. These aim to educate employees about equality issues and promote understanding of different backgrounds, encouraging a more equal working environment for each individual.

Understanding diversity

Alternatively, diversity refers to the variety of characteristic differences that exist among individuals, such as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and more. Importantly, it’s worth highlighting that diversity transcends just visible traits, acknowledging the rich backgrounds that shape our human identities.

A core ethos of diversity is valuing and celebrating interpersonal differences. When we interact with people whose lived experiences differ from our own, we gain fresh perspectives and a deeper understanding of our peers. This equips us with the tools to go through life and communicate, collaborate, and form meaningful relationships with people from all different backgrounds.

The importance of diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the working environment presents a wider range of perspectives, bringing news and innovative ideas and experiences to the table in a way that isn’t possible with a homogenous group. Ultimately, it’s this variety of perspectives that contributes to improved decision-making and more creative thinking in corporate settings.

Despite these advantages, challenges persist. Barriers to diversity can include:

  • A lack of representation in leadership positions
  • Stereotypes that hinder fair treatment
  • Failure to accommodate different working styles

Diversity training initiatives are designed to address these issues head-on, promoting cultural understanding, communication skills, and empathy among employees.

It goes without saying that equality and diversity are threads that are woven tightly together — but separate threads nonetheless. In essence, equality promotes that all individuals are treated fairly and have access to the same rights and opportunities, while diversity celebrates the unique attributes that they each possess, leveraging these differences.

Understanding equity

So, once we’ve understood these important definitions, we’re left with “equity”. At first glance, it bears a marked resemblance to “equality” — and the line between the two is blurred in many peoples’ understanding. However, while related to equality, equity represents a wholly different concept.

Equity refers to the quality of being fair to each individual by providing them with access to the same opportunities for success as others. The National Association of Colleges and Employers explains that “whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognising that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances.”

The importance of equity in the workplace

In some contexts, addressing an imbalance involves giving one individual resources that another person already possesses, in order to place them on a more equal footing. Many employers opt to offer accommodations to specific members of staff, particularly if their individual circumstances could disadvantage their performance at work in comparison to other employees.

Specialists from Human Rights Careers explain this concept with a succinct anecdote about an employee with a medical condition. They write that “a person might ask to work from home a few days a week because of a medical condition. Providing the option to work remotely allows them to fulfil the full potential at their job”. While not everyone will necessarily need to be offered the same accommodation, some may need more than others.

Ideally, each employee’s individual needs should be considered and adjustments be made to allow them to work comfortably, confidently, and with the same opportunities for progression as other staff members.

It’s vital that the workplace promotes each of these concepts to be both productive and prosocial. Together, equality, diversity and equity initiatives can drive success internally, support employee well-being, and foster intercultural harmony in wider society.

Charlotte Giver

Charlotte is the founder and editor-in-chief at Your Coffee Break magazine. She studied English Literature at Fairfield University in Connecticut whilst taking evening classes in journalism at MediaBistro in NYC. She then pursued a BA degree in Public Relations at Bournemouth University in the UK. With a background working in the PR industry in Los Angeles, Barcelona and London, Charlotte then moved on to launching Your Coffee Break from the YCB HQ in London’s Covent Garden and has been running the online magazine for the past 10 years. She is a mother, an avid reader, runner and puts a bit too much effort into her morning brew.