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Equality in the Workplace: What Does It Mean?

For years, the workplace has served as a battleground for many social justice issues such as the gender pay gap, racial discrimination, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. When people talk about taking a stand against discrimination and achieving equality, what does it mean exactly in the context of the workplace? To discuss the issue, we must first understand the different types of discrimination and the definition of equality. This gives us a better idea of where we want to go and what obstacles are in the way.

What is discrimination?

There cannot be equality in the workplace when discrimination is allowed to exist. Discrimination takes many forms, including, but not limited to, discrimination based on traits such as: Gender, Sexual orientation, Race, Age, Physical and mental disabilities, Pregnancy and Religious beliefs. A business discriminates when they pay employees in the same position different salaries based on any of the traits listed above. Businesses also discriminate if they deny compensation or benefits based on traits, and if they exclude certain people during recruitment and promotions. Equality in the workplace is also threatened when a company allows harassment and/or a culture of hostility towards certain employees. While the business is not necessarily directly involved in this type of discrimination, it has not taken steps to protect employees or establish consequences for those responsible.

What is equality?

The most basic form of equality in the workplace is a lack of discrimination. Different countries design laws and definitions to prevent discrimination. As an example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that “it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employer because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.” The Commission goes on to say that it’s also illegal to retaliate against an employee who speaks out about discrimination, files a charge, or participates in an investigation of lawsuit about discrimination.

However, equality in the workplace runs deeper than simply the absence of discrimination. Businesses must also provide opportunities to all employees equally, so everyone has the chance to improve their skills. In practice, this could include making sure that retreats and workshops aren’t prohibitively expensive to lower-salaried employees and that certain employees aren’t overlooked for further training.

What about diversity in the workplace?

When equality in the workplace is being discussed, diversity in the workplace often comes up at the same time. Is there a difference? Technically, yes, but for a workplace to be truly equal, it must also remember diversity. Diversity acknowledges peoples’ differences, so instead of being ignored or used as a justification for discrimination, the differences are celebrated. Workplaces that value diversity understand that a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and skills improve work teams and business. Diversity expands the workplace’s collective mindset and philosophy, making the environment more creative and productive. True equality embraces diversity as much as it stands against discrimination.

How to achieve equality in the workplace

How does equality in the workplace function in practice? Businesses must first commit to change and taking a hard look at their current environment. Are all the laws regarding employment equality being respected? Are there any obvious issues? The gender pay gap is one of the most common workplace problems, so companies can achieve better equality by examining their books. They can also commit to transparency about every position’s salary and stop using a job applicant’s previous salary as a starting point.

When it comes to hiring employees and embracing equality, senior management should examine the job qualifications carefully. Are there any that discourage or actually prevent certain groups from applying? Are certain qualifications – like schooling or work in a traditional office- weighted significantly higher than other types of experiences? Taking the time to ask these kinds of questions can reveal how a company might be engaging in discrimination.

The third way to achieve equality is to encourage a safe work environment. There should be a qualified HR department equipped to make sure that all hires, layoffs, and other employee interactions follow the law and don’t create hostility. HR’s job is to keep the business accountable and support every employee. If an employee has an issue, going to HR should be safe and comfortable. No employee should ever feel afraid of facing retaliation for a complaint.

Equality in the workplace – a willingness to learn and grow

Equality is more than just a lack of discrimination based on traits like sexuality, gender, and race. Within the workplace, equality is a commitment to self-reflection and change. No workplace will be perfect, but the best places to work will be environments where learning and growth are encouraged. When there’s a problem with discrimination or equality, it should be addressed with as little conflict as possible. Diversity should be seen as an asset, not an obstacle or something that’s not worth acknowledging. Employees should feel heard and respected.

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