In a recent train-the-trainer pilot that I facilitated on gender equity in employee training, the important question was raised about the difference between equality and equity in employee training. My research suggests that the difference between equality and equity is at the core of some of the challenges with equal opportunity and employee training.
Equality versus Equity
Although there may be different interpretations, a commonly used definition of equality is that everybody is treated the same, irrespective of, for example, their sex, gender, race, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Equity on the other hand, means understanding that different people face different challenges, and that different approaches may be needed to ensure fair opportunities for all. Often used images of the difference between equality and equity show a group of people with different lengths standing in front of a fence, or under an apple tree. Equality is visualized as everybody standing on an equal number of boxes to look over the fence or reach the apples. The result is that the shorter person cannot see over the fence or reach the apples, while the taller person can. Equity is visualized as the shorter person getting more boxes to stand on, to be able to see over the fence or reach the apples.
However, what these pictures often do not show is that inequity may mean that the apples hang higher, or fences are higher, for some people than other people. Even though these people have the same length, or in training terms, capability.
What this means for employee training
The next discussion we had during the session was what this means for employee training. Equality in training would mean treating all training participants the same. Independent of, for example, their sex, gender, race or class. Equity in training would mean understanding and addressing that some of the training participants face barriers concerning the training, because of, for example, their sex or gender. And here comes the crucial part: not because they fall short, or in training terms, are less or differently capable, but because the fences they face are higher.
Sometimes training aims to give special support to people who face higher fences (as an example: female leadership programmes). But the real challenge, my research suggests, is how training can help to break down these fences or barriers.
To be able to do this, training organizers and providers can ask:
- What are the barriers that my training participants face, because of, for example, their sex, gender, race or class?
- What information do I need to better understand these barriers?
- How can I help to break down those barriers with my training?
An Example: Negotiation Training
Let me bring this to life with the example of a negotiation training. When interviewing female and male account managers before a negotiation training, it becomes clear that there is a difference between the female and male account managers. The female account managers face a higher fence, namely the 'double bind':
- you are an assertive negotiator but judged negatively because you act outside of female gender norms, or
- you act in line with female gender norms, for example you are understanding and empathic, but consequently, you are perceived as weak and not a very good negotiator (by clients and within your own company).
As a training organizer or provider, you can ignore (or may not know) this 'double bind' that the female account managers face, and focus on facilitating the five steps of negotiations, while ensuring you treat all participants the same way. This could be the ‘equality in training’ approach. However, this approach could mean that the female account managers still face the 'double bind' and have less opportunity to be successful in negotiations after your training. Another approach could be that you develop additional negotiation training especially for female account managers. To help them deal with the (un)conscious bias from their clients and company.
The recommended option is to enable the entire account management team and their clients, to discuss and address the 'double bind' that the female account managers face in negotiations. This way you ensure the gender equity of your training. And you help to break down the fences that created the inequity in the first place.
My recommendation: think equity, not equality
Instead of focussing only on treating all training participants equally, my research suggests that the aim of training should be equity. To ensure that all participants can be successful as a result of the training. This means recognizing and addressing the barriers that some of the participants may face, as result of, for example, their sex, gender, race or class.
Easier said than done, you might think. And you are right. My research highlighted that training organizers and providers would need to be enabled and empowered to have these conversations. The train-the-trainer pilot was a promising first step.
If you have any questions about the pilot, or my research, do not hesitate to contact me.