Geffrye Parsons, Founder & CEO of The Inclusion Imperative

Through his DE&I consultancy practice, The Inclusion Imperative, Geffrye helps commercial organisations to build leadership capabilities and harness the power of inclusion as a key strategy for well-being, organisational learning, and superior business outcomes. Widely regarded as a thought leader and driver of positive change for workplace inclusion, Geff promotes a holistic, intersectional approach. He challenges received wisdom and practices to facilitate a culture shift and encourage business learning, drawing on 35 years of experience in front office executive roles, based in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Netherlands, with leading international financial and professional services organisations. Geff is a respected writer, speaker, and facilitator, having worked with organisations in the fields of financial services, media, energy, law, advertising, publishing, logistics, government agencies, and others, spoken at multiple conferences globally, hosted a regular podcast series, and provided published content for multiple publications and online channels.


“Equality is the soul of liberty,” wrote famous Scottish philosopher Frances Wright. And indeed, equality – ensuring that everyone is treated the same – is an inherently appealing concept: isn’t that just, well, fair?

Certainly, progress in recent decades in the perpetual quest to minimise discrimination has been a welcome pay-off from the principle of equality. The UK legislation which bears its name – the Equality Act 2010 – has ushered in previously unknown levels of security for those with protected characteristics and procured many a positive outcome, like equal pay for equal work and equalised parental leave entitlements.

But, in a workplace context, is equality really enough?

Put simply: no. All business development ultimately springs from the celebration of difference – of experience, thought, and perspective. Without that, a business is condemned to tread water in a constant loop of repetition, until rendered irrelevant by competitors who dynamically embrace the challenges and possibilities of difference.

And herein lies the anomaly: by seeking to erase, rather than make the most of, difference, equality puts a brake on the potential value offered by diversity. No team will thrive to its optimum potential if its members are all simply treated exactly the same. The aim should rather be to achieve a team that is unified, not uniform, so that individuals – for that is what they are; not cookie-cutter comparables – are able and empowered to contribute to the greater good in their own unique way.

So, prizing the positive benefits that arise from embracing difference must prima facie also involve equipping individuals equitably, rather than equally. Equity means providing everyone with the opportunity to grow and thrive, regardless of their different starting points. It implies true equality of real opportunity, facilitating people to contribute to team success from their own strengths. As Albert Einstein is believed to have said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In recent decades, the allure of meritocracy – rewarding people based solely on their abilities, skills, and achievements – has gained traction. Its core concept, that those who work hard and excel should be recognised and rewarded for their efforts, seems engaging. But by seeking to prioritise impartiality (i.e. equality) above all else, and therefore taking no account of factors which inevitably tilt the playing field – whether they are systemic inequalities and barriers (often disproportionately faced by members of minoritised social groups), or individual-level personality traits – a purely meritocratic approach often results in rewarding only those who are already set up for success and have adequate tools, resources, and support. This outcome not only fails other individuals but also compromises the success of the teams of which they form a part.

This is not to say that prioritising equity renders meritocracy irrelevant; not at all. In fact, meritocratic evaluation should always be applied – but only once the individual in question has been equitably equipped so that the application can be measured fairly. On an individual level, this means making accommodations sufficient to equip them with what they need to shine.

Perhaps the best-known illustration of equity as a concept – a cartoon of three people of varying heights trying to look over a fence, drawn by Angus Maguire for The Interaction Institute for Social Change – demonstrates this in the form of a box on which the shortest of the three can stand in order to be able to see over the fence, as the taller two already can. This is an example of a tactical solution at an individual level, others of which in a workplace context could include closer supervision, mentoring, targeted learning and development (L&D), or ensuring that all meeting attendees are given a chance (in a way with which they feel comfortable) to add their views, rather than just the loudest or most extroverted participants.

A more impactful approach, however, would be to address equitable practices as a strategic priority – making changes that are more systemic, by tackling causes rather than symptoms. In the aforementioned illustration, this would be equivalent to lowering or removing the fence, i.e. the overarching barrier to inclusion. In a workplace context, it also means devising consistent solutions to the four dimensions of relative inequity through which deeper-rooted issues like bias, discrimination, or unequal access to resources or support can manifest.

Those four dimensions of relative inequity are, in summary:

  • Institutional – policies or practices that reinforce norms in a workplace or team
  • Structural – multi-organisational or societal policies or practices that reinforce norms
  • Inter-personal – acts or micro-exclusions between individuals
  • Internalised – negative self-beliefs or esteem issues caused by the cumulative effects of the other three dimensions.

So, as noted, addressing these manifestations or sources of relative disadvantage actually facilitates, rather than precludes, meritocratic appraisal – but in a fair way which creates real equality because, as Mary Wollstonecraft has observed, “virtue can only flourish among equals”. In fact, for business reasons, it is essential to always keep one eye on merit while pursuing equitable practices. Not unlike the way that efforts to generate psychological safety have a more tangible business pay-off when feeling safe to learn, contribute and challenge is plotted against increasing standards of performance expectation to encourage improvement, failure to do so would prioritise process over outcome inappropriately. That could result in inefficiency, undermined productivity, or the de-motivation of individuals to strive for excellence.

Nor are equitable practices intended to give anyone an unfair advantage: it absolutely does not imply preferences, quotas, or tokens. Rather, it is about creating rather than transferring value, by unlocking potential which positively pollinates the broader team environment. For that reason, equitable practices should not be seen as in any way incompatible with, for example, recent Supreme Court rulings against the practice of affirmative action in the US.

Achieving workplace equity, though, is a much more challenging proposition than simply striving for equality, precluding as it does the ability to default to a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. To pursue it, leaders need to clear-sightedly perceive their workplace as one which either enables or, effectively, disables (although obviously not in a literal sense) their staff as optimal resources.

In fact, not unlike the social model of disability – which states that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by any personal impairment – team leaders must use their skills and influence to create an environment which brings the best out of their staff, by making “reasonable adjustments” (to again borrow language typically associated with accommodations for disabled persons), whether tactical or systemic, to achieve equitable outcomes for those in their corporate shadow. This is an integral part of empathetic leadership: getting to know one’s staff, and how they operate best, meaningfully – as individuals rather than just numbers.

This process is one I call “psychological ergonomics”. Just as attention is routinely paid in offices to physical ergonomics (screen height, seat angle, etc) in the interests of staff wellbeing, leaders need to start thinking differently about thinking differently. As difference is the root of all progress, their staff should feel empowered to explore divergent thinking (for example, leveraging different lived experiences or perspectives to creatively problem-solve) in order to facilitate convergent creation, i.e. new learnings and knowledge. However, this can happen only if participants experience inclusion safety and if inequitable obstacles to their optimal performance are removed by empathetic leadership behaviors.

So, organisations and teams should beware of the equality trap. Appealing though it may seem at first (in both concept and relative ease of execution), it can fail to foster an environment in which personnel differences are accommodated and therefore potentially profited from, by both the individual in question and their team. The American novelist Tom Robbins summed it up well when he said that “equality is not in regarding different things similarly; equality is in regarding different things differently”. Treating differences equitably, rather than as something to be sacrificed on the altar of equality, allows inclusion safety to develop and the potential value of diversity to be unlocked.

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