Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What is Equality and Why is it So Important?

Over the past decade the term Equality has come more and more into popular use, particularly with the passing first of the Equality Act 2006 and then the Equality Act 2010 which replaced and harmonised most of the discrimination legislation from the past 40 years.  And that’s one of the fundamental changes – previous legislation included the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act.

There has been the shift of emphasis away from the negative act of discrimination to the more positive act of creating equality which has characterised the past decade of legislation.

So what is Equality? 

Equality is about fairness  - it does not mean treating all people equally because actually we don’t all want to be treated the same.  I don’t want equal treatment, I want fair treatment. When I apply for a job I want to know that I was considered on the basis of my skills and ability, and that the decision was not based on arbitrary beliefs or stereotypes.   

In Africa there is a word Ubuntu which translates literally as “I am what I am because of who we all are”. Both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are strong proponents of the philosophy which is difficult to translate because we don't have a directly comparable concept.  The nearest is probably the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity - Do unto others as you would have then doe unto you.  

But Ubuntu is much more because it focuses on the benefit to the tribe not the individual . An African speaker friend Billy Selekane explained it to me as “What is good for the trive is good for the individual, but what is good for the individual is not necessary good for the tribe."  In wealthy countries we are a long way from this philosophy... and a long way from equality. 

Richard Wilkinson, co-author with Kate Pickett of The Spirit Level spoke in July 2011 at the TED conference which you can see below.  This speech has had over 1.4 million views and looks at a disturbing connection between inequality and the health of a nation.  What Richard has found is that the wider the gap between the incomes of the top 20% and the bottom 20% the worse the problems become - mental health, education standards, crime, teenage pregnancy, trust... in virtually every primary measure of the health of a nation, those with the biggest gap between rich an poor, which includes the UK and the USA, have the worst performance... by a huge margin. 

Listen to any of the recent speeches by Danny Dorling and you will hear many of the same findings - and the fundamental truth that inequality is bad for everyone, including ironically the rich people.  What also emerges is that inequality between states or counties reflect the same underlying problems, as does inequality between "tribes" or minority groups or people with protected characteristics. 

My personal passion is with Gender Equality and I will be addressing this in more detail in separate posts as part of a G.R.E.A.T.Vision to inspire 1,000,000 people to speakOUT about Gender Equality and Gender Diversity.  If you have not read it, I do recommend my post a couple of weeks ago - Lies, Damn Lies and the Gender Pay Gap.  

It is hugely difficult in any organisation to build trust and inspire peak performance when there is inherent inequality in the organisation,.  If we feel we are not being treated fairly, especially at times like now when we are being told "we are all in this together", we are unlikely to trust managers. 

How can anyone expect harmony in the workplace when tall men hold a disproportionate number of senior positions; when women represent less than 15% of senior managers; when jobs undertaken primarily by women are paid lower average rates than jobs primarily undertaken by men; when men expressing femininity and women expressing masculinity in their dress or behaviour are ridiculed and bullied.  

Equality is all about Fairness - and because all equality law is ultimately driven by Human Rights, it is about treating everyone with Dignity and Respect. It's not that hard - but it does take commitment from the very top to make it happen.  

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Tomorrow I will address the question – “What is Diversity and why is that so important to us all? 

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