What will equality look like?

What will equality look like?


I’ve been engaging people in this question in organizational settings over the past few years. The process has yet to yield a clear, measurable, agreed-upon vision. The most common answer in organizations to the question ‘what will equality look like’ is a visible, measurable one: relatively equal numbers of men and women at all levels of the organization. Sometimes, the conversation on numbers evolves to proportional representation – where the number of people of each gender working in a specific occupation is relatively equal to the number of people trained and ready to work in the available labour market. Next, people often identify the removal of systemic barriers (such as height or weight restrictions that cannot be demonstrated to affect job performance) – so there is nothing overt or covert that prevents one gender from advancing or taking on certain types of roles.

It’s more than the numbers

Since I’m a big fan of “If we don’t know where we are going, how on earth are we going to get there?” I finally realized we may never come to consensus on an external, physical view of equality. Ultimately, most people do not want to be judged by their gender or skin colour or any other biological characteristic. In most workplaces, people would prefer to be judged by the quality of their work, and ‘the content of their character’. An overall measure that helps to determine if in fact people are being values in this way is the employee attitude survey. In equitable systems, such surveys identify the organization as a good place to work for everyone, and when the results are sorted by gender, the conclusion still holds.

Differences are valued and seen as a benefit

I like to think that at least in one sense, we will not ever achieve gender equality. To the degree that equality means ‘sameness’, there are times and places where gender does make a difference, and we want to treat people fairly, but not necessarily ‘the same’. For example, if I have a team of female nurses, and an opening comes up, I would look for the skills and attributes it may be helpful to add to my team. Perhaps we have a good number of Cantonese or Mandarin-speaking Chinese patients, and it would be helpful to have those language skills. If we have patients of both genders, it is likely that some would prefer to have a same-gender nurse for maximum comfort and ease of communication, and therefore I would make it known that being male in this instance would be an asset. Of course, I would still choose the best person for the job, but that definition would identify a full range of skills and attributes that may be an asset to the nursing team.


I once gave a speech entitled “people of excellence: it never serves us to compete”. The theme was based on some research on great athletes that really resonated for me: the best athletes in the world do not compete against other athletes, they say, rather, they ‘compete’ to exceed their own personal best and to reach their own highest potential. A workplace that matures to embrace full equality has a purpose that serves the greater good, and makes a profit in the process, rather than existing primarily to make a profit, or to be better than others, or to ‘beat the competition’. If we are driven solely or largely by an effort to ‘be the best’ – and the best means better than the rest – than we are limiting our measures to being better than the next guy, rather than the best of what is possible.

Women at work, Men at home

I want equal opportunity for women and men at work because I believe it can make a positive difference to have a broader range of values and skills at the table. Gender equality embraces both women and men at work, and women and men at home. To create equal opportunity for women at work, we also need equal opportunity for men at home, as Warren Farrell so clearly points out. It makes a positive difference in the lives of children to have their Dads active and present in their lives – men are not simply male Moms, they parent differently and have an essential role to fulfill.

Workplaces value human beings, not just human doings

The value of being is cherished along with measurable outcomes in an equitable workplace. These workplaces identify their values, and measure and reward performance in the context of those values. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that matters. In fact, in the best of workplaces, the value of being translates into a calling to place our highest principles and values first and foremost, and to ensure our striving for achievement falls always within that framework. We are only as strong as that for which we stand…and the top of Standard & Poor’s 100 or 500 isn’t a stand that has been held by many for the long-term.

Great leaders lead people to themselves

The best leaders are people who lead others to themselves (Debashis Chaterjee). People are encouraged to take action to develop their best and highest potential, and if that means leaving the organization, then leaving is not only supported, but encouraged. Employees are actively engaged in their work, it is more than a paycheque. Every role is valued, and every role is understood to be important.

Conflict resolution, Mentoring

People are taught to go within first, rather than attack outwardly. Formal and informal processes for conflict resolution abound, and proactive measures to educate employees are ongoing. Elder mentors live wisely and well, and by their presence and example set the tone for respect and honour at work.


Joy is a daily experience in the best of organizations. The art of happiness at work is cultivated by the majority of employees, and the culture of the workplace is reflects the peace and harmony that come from acceptance of the here and now. This does not mean life is always grand at these workplaces. Rather, having learned that the avoidance of legitimate suffering will lead to their illness, organizations have a much more global understanding of their impact on the world, and both their opportunity and responsibilities in that context.

Overall, employees are proud to work with their organization, and work is more than a paycheque, it is an expression of who we are as people – either in what we do, or how we do it, or – ideally – both!

Credit: The sexes@work.calm

Author: Maureen Geddes

Originally Published: December 2004