Why does equality feel unfair?

Have you ever had a conversation or read an article about diversity and doubted the necessity of the action points? Think of, for instance, an action point for hiring more women in the IT industry. Of course, you want to treat everyone the same in the hiring process, but you don't see the point of favoring women or going out of your way to finding them. Of course, this can be extended to many other examples.

At some point in life, I assume everyone comes across a similar doubt, regardless of their gender, skin color, or sexuality. You might even think or hear someone else saying, "this is unfair". In this article, I will explain why it feels like this and why we shouldn't feel this way by using a simple metaphor.

A jar of jam

Let's think of two people trying to reach a jar of jam in a high cabinet. Both people are the same height and can take the jar without issues. This is what we call (in this example) equality. However, when one of the people is smaller and unable to reach the jam jar, we have some inequality. To fix this, we give the small person a stepping stool. By providing a stool, this person can reach the jar. The larger person does not experience any disadvantage (since he can still reach the same jar) and does not need the stepping stool. Keep in mind that the stepping stool does not imply that there might not be other inequalities besides the height difference. Sounds logical, right?

Still, when discussing diversity and trying to give everyone a fair chance, I often get the remark, "you are favoring women. That's unfair for men. Now they are being discriminated against". Or "if we would switch the roles and give men these tools, we would get canceled".

The reason you feel this way is because when we go back to the jar of jam example, you are thinking of a world where everyone is the same height, and you feel it's unfair to give someone a stepping stool when they are already on the same level as you. This is why you experience this feeling of unrighteousness.

Sadly, the two persons aren't the same height, so we look at it the wrong way. We are giving a stepping stool to a minority group who cannot reach the jam otherwise. It doesn't affect the majority, contrary to what most believe. It only helps the minority to get on the same level. So next time you feel it's unfair, think of the stepping stool, giving people the chance to reach the same jar.

But sometimes, it does impact the majority

That’s true. Let’s say you organize an event where everyone speaks Dutch except one person. You would feel frustrated that the speakers have to switch to English to ensure everyone feels included. Some of the majority group might be frustrated because they dislike speaking English. You might say the measure affects everyone in the room, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfair. Your discomfort is temporary. For that one person, after the speakers are done talking in English, everyone will probably switch to Dutch again — not just at the event, but everywhere. So think of it as giving your comfort away for one hour to someone who is always in some state of discomfort.

What would be great stepping tools for diversity?

  • Understanding the power of a stepping stool and why this is important is a fantastic beginning. It's empowering for minorities to know why they deserve a stool. If you are the majority, it will make you more empathic and understanding. Try to teach other people about this, and tell your colleagues when they aren't understanding or when they laugh something off the table.
  • Give the minority a podium. We still need a lot of role models, and this is only possible if we can be more in the spotlight. Encourage and help them. Did you know women are more likely to be judged based on appearance and knowledge? That's one of the reasons why they are more hesitant to do a talk, podcast, or go on tv. Creating a safe space is a must. (Want to read more about this? This Dutch article is quite interesting: Voor elke twijfelde vrouw willen er tien slechtere mannen wel als talkshow gast aanschuiven)
  • Try connecting with more women on your Linkedin (or in real life). The chances are that you might have a male-oriented network, so try to break this to get a more diverse network. Invest your time in this.

What would be a terrible stepping stool?

A terrible way to handle this is to make stereotypical jokes about the minority. It's digging a hole instead of providing a stool. For example, someone told a story about telling a "joke" about women and driving, and someone else called them out as misogynistic. The joker's response was, "it's just a joke". Please don't do this; you are bringing down a minority. It's harmful.

The biggest takeaway should be the stepping stool, keeping in mind that in some situations, these are necessary to give everyone an equal chance. They don't impact the other group; they simply lift the minority to the same level as the majority. How are you going to implement stools in your company? How are you going to teach your employees about the importance of it? If you want to start, check out our other blogs about inclusion!

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