Equity is Everyone’s Job: Using Leadership Behaviors to Promote Equity

Sep 27, 2023

What is Equity?

Equity is giving everyone access to the same opportunities, even if it means treating people differently. In schools, in the workplace, and throughout society, people have vastly unequal access to opportunities based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and other forms of identity. Equity means recognizing that inequality and actively remedying it.


Why Does it Matter?

Some would argue that equity is “good for the bottom line” or “the right thing to do.”  But there is a greater, more universal good that results from creating spaces where everyone belongs and is treated fairly. In her book The Wake Up, Michelle Mijung Kim talks about wanting men to fight the patriarchy not only for the women in their lives, but also because it discourages them from showing their emotions and penalizes them for choices like staying home with their kids.  She wants white people to fight racism not just for their colleagues of color, but because racism causes shame and trauma even to those who witness it.

  “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”Aboriginal Rights Group, Queensland, Australia 

What Does Equity Have to Do with Leadership?

In a formal leadership role, you have a direct responsibility to ensure your employees have what they need to succeed. It’s literally your job! Even if you do not have a formal leadership role, you have an enormous impact on others through your work relationships and the example you set.

The Leadership Challenge® gives us 30 behaviors that help us be more effective leaders the more we engage in them. It’s no coincidence that many of these behaviors represent equity in action. Let’s start with two behaviors that set the stage for a fair and psychologically safe work environment. Then we’ll dive into six more behaviors that empower people, build confidence and competence, and build reputations.


Setting the Environment for Equity


Leadership behavior #6:  Makes certain that people adhere to the principles and standards that have been agreed upon.


Does everyone in your organization follow the same standards, or are some people allowed to break the rules? And who gets to break the rules?

Many of us have worked with highly productive colleagues that get away with bad behavior. They might be doing impressive work but they’re violating respectful workplace policies or even engaging in harassment or bullying.

The failure to hold employees to standards for behavior has a disproportionate impact on women, people of color, and other identities that face systemic discrimination. Studies show this holds true across multiple industries and worsens for those with multiple marginalized identities. For example:

  • A 2018 study of higher education professionals found that Black women were more likely to be affected by workplace bullying, including being demoted and threatened with job loss.  Religion and sexual orientation further compound the effect.
  • A 2017 Kapor Center report on people who voluntarily leave tech jobs found that LGBT employees were most likely to be bullied or experience public humiliation.  Women also experienced more unfairness than men, and a large percentage of women of color reported being passed over for promotion.

It’s our job as leaders to speak up and hold others accountable for their actions. If we don’t speak up, everyone still sees what’s going on and will lose trust in the organization.


Foster Psychological Safety


Leadership Behavior 18: Asks What can we learn? when things don't go as expected.


Professor Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, who developed the term psychological safety, defines it as “a belief that one won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”  Psychological safety sets the stage for the kind of experimentation and creative risk-taking that can lead to job satisfaction and professional growth. But often women, especially women of color, don’t experience the same degree of psychological safety as their white male counterparts (citation).

You can encourage or even partner with people to try new ways of working, but what happens if things don’t go as planned? Respond with curiosity and openness to learning from what happened. Blaming and shaming are sure to discourage future experimentation and risk-taking and make inequities worse.


Empower and Lift People Up


Leadership Behavior  #19: Involves people in the decisions that directly impact their job performance.Leadership Behavior  #24: Gives people a great deal of freedom and choice in deciding how to do their work.


On my agency’s employee engagement survey, we ask whether people have the opportunity to give input on decisions affecting their work. In 2021, people living with a disability had a 9% lower positive rating on this question. People who identified as female had a 9% lower rating, and people who identified as gender non-binary had a 45% lower rating than people who identified as male. This means that lot of people at my agency are missing out on opportunities to excel at and grow in their jobs.

As a supervisor or colleague, extend trust to people to make their own decisions and coach rather than micromanage. They will learn more from coaching questions than from telling them exactly what to do. If you’re leading or involved in decision-making, always ask whether the right people are at the table and who is being left out.


Build Confidence and Competence


Leadership Behavior #10:  Makes it a point to let people know about their confidence in their abilities.Leadership Behavior #29: Ensures that people grow in their jobs by learning new skills and developing themselves.


We owe a lot of our professional development to the people around us, who readily share their expertise and advice, who invite us to help with interesting projects, and who boost our confidence. But does everyone in your organization get the same access? And who tends to get promoted?

A 2021 article on racial equity issues in workplace learning and development cites a lack of career development support for Black workers.  Further, front line workers—a more diverse workforce than salaried employees—often miss out on career development and tuition reimbursement opportunities.

Effective leaders watch for and encourage people’s strengths and abilities and get them the development they need. An administrative assistant with no college degree shows skill in database management and reporting. Could you advocate with their supervisor to get them into an IT degree program? A recent immigrant for whom English is a second language is an inspiring people manager but afraid of public speaking. How could you build their confidence?


Build Reputations


Leadership Behavior #15: Makes sure that people are creatively recognized for their contributions to the success of our projects.Leadership Behavior #25: Tells stories of encouragement about the good work of others.


You may think of recognition and encouragement as nice, but not necessary at work. In fact, recognition is feedback on what we are doing well, and it helps build a positive reputation within our organization. This doesn’t guarantee a promotion, but it can help our careers and recognition makes us feel valued at work.

A 2022 Gallup article reports that Black and Hispanic employees are less likely to perceive recognition as equitable, compared to White employees.  So again, think about who is getting recognition within your organization. Can you find ways to creatively recognize people whose contributions don’t typically garner attention? Another idea is to spread “positive gossip,” making sure that your leadership and other divisions learn about the unsung heroes in your organization.

What Can I Do?

Look back at the eight behaviors we discussed…which ones already have a positive impact on your team? Which behaviors could you engage in more often? If you’re not sure, the Leadership Practices Inventory 360 is a good way to get feedback from the people you work with.

Also, consider who you spend time empowering and encouraging and focus on the people with the least power, whose identities are least represented within the organization. I think about this when someone asks for my mentorship or career advice, when I’m nominating someone for an award, and when I’m sharing development opportunities.

Individual behavior alone won’t change long-standing, entrenched systems of oppression, but equity is still everyone’s job and requires intentional leadership actions.


Contributed by Hannah Aoyagi, Ph.D.

Image of Certified Master Hannah Aoyagi, Ph. D

Hannah is Organizational Equity Manager at the Washington State Department of Ecology—the state’s environmental protection agency. She supports and provides leadership on civil rights compliance, language access, accessibility, and workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also represents the agency on statewide Pro-Equity Anti-Racism efforts.

Hannah is also a Certified Master with The Leadership Challenge and leads a group of facilitators and coaches at the Department of Ecology. She believes that organizational change requires courageous and thoughtful leaders, and envisions a workplace where everyone feels valued, empowered, and supported, and a Washington where all people have equal access to a clean and healthy environment.

Hannah has her Ph.D. in Environmental Health, Science, & Policy from U.C. Irvine, with a focus on environmental justice. Her dissertation looked at patterns of inequity in air pollution in Los Angeles County, and the impact of environmental regulation.

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