Equality vs equity How does it impact women at the workplace

An overview of the research

Bronfenbrenner (1973) argued that there is a distinction between the terms ‘equality’ and ‘equity’, although they are phonetically similar and have philological connections. While equality is a matter of fact and an objective concept, the term equity is a matter of ethical judgment and is a subjective concept (Bronfenbrenner, 1973). Applying these terms to the workplace scenario, the fine distinction between equality and equity has been related to the sameness of treatment (equality) and fairness of treatment (equity). In other words, while an inquiry into whether there is equality at workplace would be concerned with whether employees are treated in a similar manner to each other, an inquiry into whether there is equity at workplace would concern itself with whether the employees are treated fairly in comparison with each other. The difference is in the application of ethical precepts with relation to equity. This distinction is important and can inform effective inquiry into management and workplace related issues because a focus on equity will ensure that the management is concerned with driving fair outcomes for employees. In other words, this will go beyond merely considering the objective facts of similar treatment to all employees when fair outcomes can only be achieved by considering equity for employees.

This research is important because mere attention to equality at workplace is not adequate to achieve fair outcomes for all employees; equality is more concerned with providing the same or similar treatment to all employees which is not adequate to giving all employees access to full range of opportunities and benefits. Equity is more appropriate for providing employees full range of opportunities and benefits because it is concerned with levelling the playing field between different groups of employees, which may in fact require not same but different treatment of employees. In other words, equality of treatment may lead to inequitable outcomes for employees because of their unequal position. As all employees are not equal, equal treatment rather than equitable treatment would lead to perverse outcomes.


Inequality of circumstances, abilities, resources and experiences do lead to unequal positioning of employees, which merits equitable and not merely equal treatment.

The premise for this research is that women employees may be provided access to opportunities through equity, but this may raise important questions about fairness of policy that is more favourable to women under an equity paradigm. The research question that this research proposes to explore is:

Does the difference between equality and equity paradigm, and an emphasis on the equity paradigm lead to fairness outcomes in the context of gender equity at the workplace?

The research question is based on the premise that an equality paradigm (without reference to equity paradigm) is inadequate to address the issue of gender equity at workplace. Added to this is a complex problem that is raised in literature that an emphasis on equity can also lead to the problem of having an adverse impacts for women employees as suggested by Hebl and King (2019) and Hideg and Ferris (2016).

Positioning of the research

Equity and equality are distinct concepts and while both are related to fairness, they involve different methods for achieving fairness. Equality has been defined in the context of levelling or minimising of disparities between people irrespective of the contributions that they make (Cohen, 1987). On the other hand, equity has been defined in the context of the achievement of fairness through allocations corresponding with contributions (Utting, 2007). Bronfenbrenner (1973) has argued that the distinction is more to do with one (equality) being objective and the other (equity) being subjective and ethics oriented. The advantage of applying equity along with equality or even in the place of equality would be related to going beyond the objective considerations of treating everyone similarly and instead applying judgement of individuals’ contributions, which bypasses the simplicity of treating all people equally (Bronfenbrenner, 1973). It has been said that such “contribution view to fairness” is related to “a worker's just share of the resulting revenues [generated by the firm’s activity] is the amount that he or she contributes to production (Boatright, 2010, p. 172). More recently, Frazer, et al. (2021) has argued that the dichotomy between equity and equality is inevitable because this is based on the way the world is structured and for which purpose equity becomes an important concept. In the workplace and professional cadres, while equity has been introduced to improve the equality of the workplace, it is argued that the actual application of equity through diversity and inclusion has also led to a more active debate on equality and equity (Frazer, et al., 2021). The debate is based on the difference between equality which is about access to resources and equity, which is about fairness and as such the two concepts do not lead to same outcomes when applied in the workplace (Frazer, et al., 2021). The difficulty as Frazer, et al. (2021) point out, is that while equity can provide affirmative action policy, equality considerations can lead to questions as to whether this is fair policy to those who are outside of the scope of affirmative action (Frazer, et al., 2021). This work does not relate to workplace equality and equity in the context of gender relations. In that sense, this work does not focus on an important aspect that is taken on in this research study.

Hebl and King (2019) have collated recent research on workplace equity in the United States to identify the areas of concern and challenges in the achievement of the workplace equity, but they do not have a discussion on how the distinction between equality and equity can impact outcomes for women at workplace. Hebl and King (2019) do identify a cause of concern in how equity initiatives can be counter-productive in leading to some adverse impacts for women because these consist of making some concessions or special provisions for women, such as, maternity leave. This provides an insight into how equity initiatives can be distinguished from equality initiatives and also the challenges associated with the former.

Samara and Arenas (2017) explore a mix of equality and equity to achieve fairness at the workplace in a family firm where workplace equity involves achieving fairness between family and non-family employees. In so doing, they distinguish between two types of human capital involved in such firms, including family member employees and non family employees and they argue that for the management of such types of human capital in a complex situation that is involved in a family business, in order to promote fairness, the family business can as a starting point for promotion of fairness practice a mix of equality and equity. In the context of equity and equality, Samara and Arenas (2017) argue that considering the tacit knowledge of the firm that the family member employee has and the non family employee may not have, and the levels of motivation at work that the family member may have over the non family employee in the place of business, privileged treatment for the family employee may indicate more equity but less equality while the non family employee’s greater knowledge and experience, and lesser likelihood to consume company resources for private benefits, privileged treatment for the non family employee would lead to more equity and less equality. Samara and Arenas (2017) demonstrate how the concepts of equality and equity present complex frameworks and how using one over the other may not lead to fair outcomes while providing a mix of the two concepts may lead to fairer outcomes for the different types of employees within the same firm. This also demonstrates how ethicality of outcomes can be justified by mixing the two frameworks. However, this study does not use any specific ethical construct to understand this ethicality of applying a mix of equality and equity concepts to respond to the concerns of family owned workplace with both family and non family employees.

Hideg and Ferris (2016) provide a more focussed approach on how employment equity policies are made in support of women employees, but the research also suggests that whole sexist attitudes undermine support women employees, there are also certain effects of benevolent sexism that can be thought to be more complex. The research also suggests that benevolent sexism, which can be seen as an aspect of equity in employment, subtly undermines gender inequality because it may contribute to occupational gender segregation and also lead to inaction in promoting women in positions in which they are underrepresented (Hideg & Ferris, 2016). At the same time, it is suggested that gender based employment equity has been useful for addressing the inequalities that have been apparent in the employment sector, wherein such equity is based on the aim to reduce discrimination and increase the hiring of women (Hideg & Ferris, 2016). The important point that Hideg and Ferris (2016) make is that when they collate a large body of research on employment equity, there is evidence of negative employee reactions to equity based policies which then come in the way of promoting gender diversity and equality in the workplace. This work, compared to the ones discussed above, is more keenly focussed on women and workplace and the role of equity in the employment context.

Another work that is considering of how workplace equity policies may be applied for the purpose of providing equal opportunities at workplace is by Walsh (2007) where the researcher examines equal opportunities policy provision and practice in Britain and also explored to what extent workplaces might be adopting diversity management practices in the UK. This work is useful because it adopts data from survey to explore how equity policies can be used for the providing access to equal opportunities at workplace. However, the research is more general in nature and relates to equal opportunities in general and not with gender equity policies in particular. Another work which does focus more particularly on gender equity is by Sturm (2006) and this work focusses on developing a framework and methodology for pursuing inclusive institutions in workplace. However, this work is only limited to educational institutions and does not take into consideration corporate entities which may provide a different environment and structure of workplaces. An important point that is however made in this work is related to the perspective that equity is related to the creating of the conditions that can enable people of all races and genders to realise their capabilities (Sturm, 2006). This is an approach that is more based on the idea that equity is related to providing access to equal opportunities for which purpose the employer or management may drive equity policies that lead to creation of environment where such equal opportunities may be provided. While Strum (2006) does provide insight into this crucial aspect which is also a part of this research, it is limited to the education employment sector.

Research design and methodology

The first step in formulating research design being the selection of a research philosophy (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2012), this research design is based on Positivism philosophy, which is an objective and scientific approach. The positivism philosophy sees the researcher applying objective methods to collection and analysis of the data while accepting certain assumptions about the way the world is viewed (Collins, 2010). The data is not subjected to interpretation, but accepted for what it is. The choice of the philosophy is based on the purposes and motivations of the researcher and becomes the basis for the formulation of the entire research design (Wilson, 2014). In the present research, the researcher seeks to gain more insight into how the distinction between equality and equity impacts women at workplace and how equity can provide a basis for creating a more equal environment for women at workplace.

The next step is the selection of research approach from inductive or deductive approaches (Bryman & Bell, 2015). An inductive approach is a bottoms up approach, wherein the researcher is involved in collecting data that will lead to identification of patterns and formulation of theory (Bryman & Bell, 2015). The deductive approach is top down approach where the researcher starts with an existing theory, which is then applied to the data collected so as to understand how the data relates to the general theory (Perrin, 2015). As equality and equity are two concepts that have already been studied and researched by other theorists, the present research will use a deductive approach to relate the data collected for this research with the existing theory. The research process can begin with making broad assumptions about the research topic; in this case, the broad assumption is that equity provides a more appropriate model to create equitable workplace conditions for female employees. Through the course of the research, the researcher may narrow down the broad assumptions as new themes are revealed by the literature and data collected and analysed by the researcher (Creswell, 2013).

The next step is to identify the research method out of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches (Creswell, 2013, p. 12). In this research, the topic of research, which is equality versus equity at workplace in the context of female employees, is a complex and nuanced subject. A qualitative method is chosen for this research as this is more appropriate to exploring more nuanced areas of research. A quantitative inquiry is more appropriate where the researcher seeks to test the variables to examine the relationship between them (McLeod, 2013). The data for the quantitative research is numerical in nature and the researcher tests the formulated hypotheses to test the relationship between selected variables (Maxwell, 2013). Quantitative research is not appropriate for research areas where the researcher seeks to derive deeper insight and a nuanced approach to the research. In this research study, where the researcher seeks to understand and explore how equality and equity are distinct and provide different outcomes for the employees and how equity may help to create a more equitable workplace environment, quantitative method will be inadequate to explore the nuances in the data. Therefore, a qualitative research method is adopted by the researcher. Earlier, positivism was not thought to be appropriate for qualitative research, but social research scholarship has now come to accept the use of positivism philosophy for qualitative research as well (Bryman & Bell, 2015). Qualitative research method has the advantage of providing a degree of flexibility to the researcher for the analysis of the data (Opoku, Ahmed, & Akotia, 2016), which can be useful in research on complex topics (Creswell, 2013).

The next step is to determine the nature of the data that will be collected by the researcher, primary or secondary. In this research study, it is proposed that secondary data be used for the purpose of data collection. As the positivist research philosophy is adopted by the researcher, the use of a systematic literature review method will ensure that an objective and scientific approach is taken to the collection of data. A systematic literature review is based on collection of data from books, academic journals, reports, and other grey literature, where the researcher follows a set protocol for locating and identifying the data to be used for the research (Bettany-Saltikov, 2012). This research study will not be utilising primary data collected directly from the participants. However, this research study will utilise other secondary data which consists of empirical studies conducted by other researchers where such researchers may have used primary data collection methods. Bashir and Murudhar (2018) write that collection of primary data is essential in studies on subject matter where there is a paucity of data, because such primary data is useful for increasing empirical knowledge. In the current research study, there is no paucity of data because there is now a considerable body of research on equality and equity at workplace which the researcher proposes to utilise for the purpose of identifying the crucial ways in which equity would provide a framework for improving the workplace conditions for women employees. Moreover, there are certain justifiable reasons why primary data is not being chosen as the data, including the pandemic situation which would make it difficult for the researcher to meet with participants and take their interviews. Surveys and questionnaires, which could also provide primary data are not appropriate for this research because these will not yield the kind of data that is necessary for a primary research into such a nuanced and complex area of research and therefore, will likely not lead to credible results. Due to these reasons, it is considered more appropriate by this researcher to conduct a systematic literature review for locating and identifying a wide range of data which would also include empirical data from earlier research as well as credible sources from academic and other research. As systematic literature review is being utilised, this will also help align the research design with positivism research philosophy.

Furthermore, in line with a positivism approach to analysing the data in a systematic and objective manner, the researcher will apply a thematic network tool to analyse the data and identify all the important themes within such data (Atrride-Sterling, 2001). As qualitative data may involve many themes and the data can also be copious and scattered, a thematic tool allows the researcher to structure and depict themes in the data (Atrride-Sterling, 2001). The researcher can use this tool to identify the basic, organising and global themes; basic themes are read together to identify a clear structure of organising theme or a cluster of basic themes relating to the same issues and these themes can lead to groups of global or macro themes (Atrride-Sterling, 2001).

Potential outcomes of the research study

This study may lead to the following potential outcomes. First, a more enhanced understanding of how a combination of equality and equity can lead to fairness outcomes in the context of gender equity at the workplace. Second, an understanding of how equity framework can lead to questions about fairness of policy that is more favourable to women and what can be done to address these questions through an application of a combination of equality and equity frameworks.

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The aim of the research is to understand the different ways in which equality and equity paradigms lead to fairness outcomes in the context of gender equity at the workplace. The objectives of the research are as follows: (i) explore the equality paradigm for fairness outcomes in gender equity context; (ii) explore the equity paradigm for fairness outcomes in gender equity context; (iii) identify and explain the differences between the two paradigms in leading to gender equity at workplace; (iv) understand which paradigm is more suitable/ and if a combination of the two paradigms is more suitable for achieving the aims of gender equity at workplace; and (v) make recommendations based on research and literature.


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Proposed timetable of study

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