A few years ago, I was part of a large audience of educationalists being addressed by a distinguished ‘branding expert’ about how to gain corporate competitive advantage. Despite my own belief that encouraging schools to create competitive advantage over one another generally undermines the common good, I learned a great deal that day and continue to watch with interest notions of competitive advantage, collaborative advantage and brand equity evolving in the public discourse.

The title of the workshop I mention above foregrounded the concept of Equity. I recall it now because on that day I understood better than ever how easy it is to be using the same words as somebody else and yet to understand them to mean something completely different. Our speaker on the day talked engagingly and at length about brand equity and competitive difference, citing amusing detail about consumer goods whose success had been achieved by heeding startling consumer insights or implementing exceptional product innovations. The audience became increasingly perplexed: the link with education was at best not obvious to us. The fact was that the word ‘equity’ to an audience of teachers held a very different primary meaning to that generally understood in the world of property, finance or ……… business. Our speaker was trying to help us see how we might try to stand out better – to identify and ‘sell’ more powerfully our schools’ ‘USP’.

I’m keen to take a look here at notions of equity for business but through an educator’s lens. And while we’re at it, let’s consider equality, too. An ethically good and right value principle for any business – in its internal operations as well as in its interface with society – must surely be equality: equal opportunities, equal treatment, equal recognition, equal pay. Whilst our society is demonstrably finding these things hard to achieve, surely there can’t be anything wrong with ‘equality’ as a goal?

Or maybe there’s a better way: for one thing, the reputation of ‘equality’ as an objective is tarnished by a widely held view that it is incompatible with ‘excellence’ because it subordinates true merit in favour of a fashionably ethical but unattainable goal. In other words, it’s ‘PC’ but ill-advised as a
business driver. Whilst in some contexts this may be true, I suggest that there need be no such risk if we think, instead, of equity and excellence as mutually dependent and virtuous operating values.

Striving for equality without compromising excellence, then, can be made easier by taking an ‘equity’ approach. By this I mean simply identifying and systematically tackling the barriers which individuals or groups of people face when it comes to sharing fully in the opportunities available. It provides a way of thinking not only about business approaches, but to product design and service delivery, too.

Equality legislation has forced the pace a little, but coercion is never as effective as willing adoption by parties who see the benefit for themselves of changing the way they look at a problem. What if recruitment, induction, workforce development, opportunities to lead, encouragement to innovate and pay and leave were determined with a steady eye to levelling the playing field? This could transform access, success and progression in the workplace. It need not mean extreme adoption of inflexible ‘equity practice’ and it absolutely must not mean exposing or stigmatising ‘disadvantage’.

We know that diverse voices and diverse perspectives result in creative and exciting team dynamics and in novel approaches to meeting wicked challenges. It is of benefit to the bottom line. And finally, of course, it’s the right thing to do; and it’s never wrong to do things for the right reasons.

Prof. Alison Shaw works on removing social and educational barriers to success.