DCFO IWD Series: Equality vs Equity – Why The Difference Matters?

11 mins read

23 March 2023

Fairness really only functions when everyone is equal at the outset.

The International Women’s Day campaign theme for 2023, “Embrace Equity,” aims to start a global conversation on why “equal opportunities are no longer adequate” and can actually be exclusive rather than inclusive. Giving every person or group the same resources or opportunities is referred to as equality. Recognizing that every person has unique circumstances, equity distributes the precise resources and opportunities required to get an equal result.

Giving everyone what they need to succeed is a definition of equity. To put it another way, not everyone receives the same thing. Giving everything to everyone in the hopes that it will make everyone equal makes the assumption that everyone started out in the same position, which can be wildly wrong because no two people are alike.

As it’s frequently believed that “being fair” entails that everyone receives the same treatment, the concept of “fairness” might be challenging. Although we were frequently told this as children, “fairness” really only functions when everyone is equal at the outset.

Kris Giswold, Senior Vice President Finance, AMEA, Mondelez and Shenola Gonzales, CEO, Alevate Solutions and Fellow Chartered Accountant (FCA) with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and Koren Wines, Managing Director, Xero (Asia) provided their perspective and insights on equity and equality in the workplace. 

The Importance Of Understanding The Difference Between Equity And Equality In The Workplace

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the impact which intersectionality has on equality. Simply explained, intersectionality refers to the various aspects of people’s identity which intersect to create who we are, like our gender identity, race, religion, politics, sexuality, socioeconomic status, access to education and so much more. Some aspects of our identity are advantageous, and some create barriers to opportunity, but everyone’s identity is different. So throughout their lives and with this understanding in mind, creating an equal or universal “solution/tools” to successfully overcome these barriers to opportunity is impossible.

When it comes to equity, it’s important for us to reflect on where we have advantage and subsequently power because of that advantage. Through that reflection, we can look to use that power positively in the workplace by focusing on the outcome we want to achieve and making decisions and implementing structure and process which removes barriers and adversity and breaks the bias for those without the power, that’s equity.

– Koren Wines, Managing Director, Xero (Asia)

We can’t talk about achieving equitable outcomes without first acknowledging that each person  has different circumstances with different starting points and needs. As such, we wouldn’t  necessarily achieve an equal outcome by providing everyone with the same resources and  opportunities. Equity is a better and more inclusive approach because it is about serving these different needs and removing systemic or structural barriers to create an inclusive environment  where people can thrive. 

Equity is especially crucial for global companies with diverse workforces like Mondelēz, where individuals from different backgrounds need to collaborate with one another. Mondelēz recognizes the diversity of our talent pool and this is why we have added equity to our D&I  strategy to become DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion). By maximizing the power of our  employees, it will enable us to serve our consumers better and deliver even stronger  performance. 

– Kris Giswold, Senior Vice President Finance, AMEA, Mondelez

The terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably, causing confusion about their distinct meanings. Although both are significant, it is crucial to understand what equity truly means. Equality ensures that everyone has the same access to resources. However, equity goes beyond this one-dimensional approach and recognizes that not everyone starts from the same point, as some have advantages over others due to factors such as economic status, education, or relationships.

To illustrate this, equality centres on offering the same starting point to everyone, while equity focuses on achieving an outcome by addressing individual needs and setting a specific goal. Understanding this key difference between equity and equality is essential because it can have a significant impact on the workplace.

In a workplace that values equality, everyone is treated the same, and opportunities are provided equally to all employees. However, this approach does not consider that employees may have different needs and backgrounds that require unique support to help them succeed.

On the other hand, a workplace that values equity recognises that employees have different needs and experiences, and it aims to provide resources and support that are tailored to each employee’s unique circumstances. This approach can help level the playing field and create a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

By implementing equity-based policies and practices, companies can foster a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion, ultimately leading to increased employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity. Additionally, it can attract and retain a more diverse workforce,  increasing both its intangible (brand value) and tangible value (profitability). Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work in organisations that were both equitable and inequitable.

I was very fortunate to begin my career in a very equitable workplace, Ernst & Young (UK) – and this is going back almost 20 years! They were way ahead of their time. Looking back and comparing it to my subsequent roles, I believe it was the DNA of the firm, which was highly driven by the Code of Ethics as emphasised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW). This drove the behaviour of the firm and in turn fostered a very equitable workplace. 

– Shenola Gonzales, CEO, Alevate Solutions and Fellow Chartered Accountant (FCA) with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)

The Harm Gender Stereotypes Have Caused To Women’s Opportunities & Capabilities In The Workplace

Gender stereotypes are harmful in two ways: It impacts the way women see themselves and  how decision-makers view them. 

Various research has shown that internalized gender stereotypes can cause women to question  their own abilities which results in hesitation or reluctance when speaking up in meetings or  going for new opportunities like promotions. As such, it holds women back from achieving their  full potential in the workplace. 

On the flip side, when decision-makers in the workplace hold biased views due to gender  stereotypes, it may affect the way female employees’ performances are evaluated or credited,  and this in turn affects their career progression or opportunities provided to them, such as  leadership roles. 

– Kris Giswold, Senior Vice President Finance, AMEA, Mondelez

While the number of women in senior finance leadership roles is increasing, the number remains small. The finance industry, like other industries, unfairly judges and limits women due to gender stereotypes. 

Women are hesitant to show empathy or female gender traits when in a senior role, for fear of being viewed negatively. As such (and I speak from first-hand experience) women often conform to male leadership styles which has resulted in the birth of negative nicknames such as ‘Ice Queen’, ‘Bossy’ or ‘Dragon lady’ when describing a woman leader. The equivalent male leader is often positively termed ‘Cool headed’, ‘Assertive’  or ‘ Tough minded’.  

This narrative needs to change as it undermines the value of unique female traits and abilities, resulting in less diversity and fewer opportunities to address gender stereotypes. If this trend continues, it can become a vicious cycle as the finance industry, which is already male-dominated, may attract even fewer women. This, in turn, can harm the industry’s competitiveness and effectiveness as a whole.

Throughout my career, I have experimented with different approaches to leadership, but the one that brought the most fulfilment and success was when I embraced my authentic self. I didn’t feel the need to conform to stereotypes or hide my responsibilities outside of work. Additionally, I found that joining relevant networks (such as the ICAEW Women in Finance Community) and exchanging experiences with other professionals proved immensely helpful in my personal and professional growth. 

My advice to any woman seeking a senior leadership position is to connect with people who share your aspirations, believe in yourself, and stay true to your authentic self. In addition, having access to real-life experiences and information, rather than just relying on statistics, will equip you with the necessary knowledge to prepare for the role and thrive in it.

– Shenola Gonzales, CEO, Alevate Solutions and Fellow Chartered Accountant (FCA) with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)

The traditional stereotype that women must be the primary caregiver for children inherently leads to discrimination against them. These ingrained perceptions of women’s priorities and commitment have led to the creation of policies, processes and mindsets throughout every aspect of our lives which ultimately create biases and barriers for women in the workplace.

These assumptions make it significantly more difficult for women to even apply let alone obtain roles in the first place when competing against men, as it is presumed for example, that they’ll take more time off than their male counterparts when having a baby. If they already have kids, assumptions that they’ll be unable to travel or won’t be able to work overtime due to caregiving responsibilities, often unconsciously influence decision making on who to hire, regardless of their individual capabilities and skills.

Koren Wines, Managing Director, Xero (Asia)

Some Policies To Have In The Organization To Provide A More Supportive And Conducive Environment For Women

Encouraging people to reflect on their personal biases and thought processes through training on areas such as unconscious bias and inter-cultural communication will help employees become more aware of their blind spots and understand how cultural differences can impact  the way people work and how people interact at work. At Mondelēz, we have introduced an  Unconscious Bias program to cater to market-specific situations, such as generational diversity  in China. 

We have also implemented practices focused on fairness in hiring and pay equity, including  requiring diverse slates for open roles and providing inclusivity training for all people managers,  which has enabled us to increase the representation of women in our leadership roles. I am  proud to share that today, 34% of our leadership team globally are women. Additionally, we rolled out mentorship programs, including targeted platforms in Southeast Asia focused on advancing and accelerating development of our women leaders. 

– Kris Giswold, Senior Vice President Finance, AMEA, Mondelez

Offering parents, both men and women the same entitlements, in maternity v parental leave, as an example, is a great starting point to combat the stereotype that women must be the primary caregiver and the associations that inevitably come along with, as shared above. We are seeing companies become more progressive in this view. Xero for example, allocates leave based on whether someone is a primary and secondary caregiver, regardless of gender and thus removing gender from the decision-making process. 

By offering a more equitable solution for both parents of either gender, this gives families the opportunity to structure their roles and responsibilities in a way that works best for them and achieves the ideal outcome. The perception that men are the breadwinners and women are the primary caregivers is an outdated stereotype and not the norm in today’s world. Ultimately policies such as these need to be driven by governments to fundamentally change expectations and understandings at community and broader levels.

I strongly believe that company policies play a significant role in shaping the company culture.  There are many policies in companies that I have been part of that stand out to me as conducive to women.

Koren Wines, Managing Director, Xero (Asia)

  1. Equal Pay: Companies should ensure that women are paid the same amount as their male counterparts for the same job and level of experience.
  2. Flexible Work Arrangements: Companies can provide flexible work arrangements, such as remote work or flexible hours, to help women balance work and family responsibilities.
  3. Parental Leave: Companies can offer parental leave for both mothers and fathers to help women balance work and family responsibilities.
  4. Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs: Companies can establish mentorship and sponsorship programs to help women advance in their careers and develop their skills.
  5. Diversity and Inclusion Training: Companies can provide diversity and inclusion training to help employees understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and create a more inclusive environment.
  6. Anti-Discrimination Policies: Companies should have anti-discrimination policies in place to ensure that women are not discriminated against based on their gender or any other protected characteristic.
  7. Employee Resource Groups: Companies can establish employee resource groups (ERGs) for women to provide support, networking opportunities, and professional development opportunities.
  8. Back to work Programs: Companies can offer back to work programmes for women who have taken a break from their careers to care for family members or for any other reason, to help them re-enter the workforce and advance their careers.

These policies can help create a more supportive and conducive environment for women in the workplace, leading to greater gender equity and diversity, as well as improved organizational performance.

– Shenola Gonzales, CEO, Alevate Solutions and Fellow Chartered Accountant (FCA) with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)

Why Should More Women Take Up Leadership Roles?

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by women leaders at Xero! Our CEO Sukhinder Singh Cassidy leads the executive team, of which women make up the majority and the same goes for my leadership team in our Asia business. Ultimately, I believe the outcome we want to create is to support women in all their professional endeavors  and if those are in areas of leadership which have been historically dominated by men, we need to address the range of barriers we touched on earlier through intersectionality and remove them to ensure women have the equity to succeed.

Koren Wines, Managing Director, Xero (Asia)

We believe that we can better understand our consumers and our customers when our  workforce reflects the communities we serve. Women bring unique and fresh perspectives to  the table which will help inspire creativity and drive innovation for companies. Research has  shown that the most diverse companies have better business performances than their less  diverse peers.  

Other research has also shown that having women in leadership roles may also help to attract  a more diverse workforce, catalyze positive changes in workplace policies that benefit all, and  help reduce the pay gap between men and women.

– Kris Giswold, Senior Vice President Finance, AMEA, Mondelez

During the course of my career, I have held various senior leadership roles in the corporate world and in the entrepreneurial space.  In every role I have learnt some invaluable lessons – both positive and negative. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that women offer a unique perspective that brings diversity to leadership, and their innovative thinking is impressive. Moreover, businesses led by women tend to perform better financially, as they integrate multiple strategies to achieve not only the bottom line but also softer goals.

Women bring with them a unique and varied style to leadership.  A woman leader can help to drive positive social change, including promoting greater gender equality in the workplace, addressing issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination, and advocating for policies and practices that benefit all employees, not just a select few.

Having more women in leadership roles serves as a positive example and inspiration for future generations of women, breaking down gender stereotypes and encouraging girls and young women to pursue leadership roles themselves. 

Some of the women leaders that have inspired me include Indra Nooyi, Sheryl Sandberg and Jacinda Ardern.  One never forgets an inspiring woman leader and their story of how they broke the glass ceiling, faced their challenges and paved the way forward for other women.

To all the women out there stepping up to that leadership role and experiencing self-doubt – always remember the famous quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”


– Shenola Gonzales, CEO, Alevate Solutions and Fellow Chartered Accountant (FCA) with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)