Equality and diversity – what’s the difference?

What’s the difference between equality and diversity? What's the meaning of equality and diversity?

Equality is about ensuring everybody has an equal opportunity, and is not treated differently or discriminated against because of their characteristics.

Diversity is about taking account of the differences between people and groups of people, and placing a positive value on those differences.

Equality of opportunity

Equality of opportunity is about ensuring everybody has an equal chance to take up opportunities and also to make full use of the opportunities on offer and to fulfil their potential.

"Regardless of age, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion or belief, disability or the passport they hold, every worker should enjoy an equal chance to up-skill or learn something new at work." - Frances O’Grady, Breaking through the barriers

We are still working hard to get equality of opportunity. For example, women still earn less than men, and people from black and minority ethnic groups still do less well in terms of education and the jobs they do than people from other groups. Part-time, temporary and shift workers may not have access to training or opportunities to progress at work.

Examples of inequalities in learning include:

  • Black workers have fewer training opportunities than white workers and black women get an even worse deal.
  • Older Workers may have been in the job for longer but this may only mean that the longer you are in a job the less training you will receive.
  • Manual workers and/or workers with few qualifications are mainly overlooked for training as those who have a lot of education and training tend to benefit from any training on offer.
  • Part-time workers and temporary workers are often left behind when training is on offer as employers place a greater value on permanent or full-time workers at the cost of temporary or part-time workers. Women make up the majority of part-time workers.
  • Workers for whom English is a second language may find that the only jobs open to them are manual / low skilled jobs. Whilst some will have qualifications, these may have been achieved in another country and employers will often overlook them. A lack of spoken English is often a barrier to moving on.
  • Shift workers are least likely to participate in learning in colleges because of working patterns, or to be offered training by their employer.  They may need to be encouraged when learning is promoted and shift times taken into account when onsite learning takes place.
  • Discrimination often plays a role when access to job and training opportunities are based on negative stereotypes and perceptions of what people can and can’t do.

As a union learning rep (ULR), you will already know about barriers to learning and about how a lack of skills or qualifications can make you feel less confident and de-motivated.

“Union learning has a massive contribution to make in building individual and collective confidence, and dealing with discrimination, disadvantage and unfairness wherever we find it.”


Diversity is about celebrating and valuing how different we all are. This is strongly linked with promoting human rights and freedoms, based on principles such as dignity and respect. Diversity is about recognising, valuing and taking account of people's different backgrounds, knowledge, skills, and experiences, and encouraging and using those differences to create a productive and effective workforce.

Diversity is something that applies to everyone, and should be part of everything we do. It is an important part of our work and not just a side issue. It requires everyone to play a full part. It is important to recognise that none of us fit neatly into separate ‘packages’ which can be neatly labelled or discriminated against. 

Do you know someone who?

Do you know someone who?

Everyone has something about them that is different. It makes no sense to discriminate or stereotype people because they are different from us.

What do equality and diversity have to do with learning?

How does this link with learning? ULRs can help to ensure that everyone can participate in learning and share their ideas and experiences with others. They can also encourage discussion about equality and diversity to make sure that everyone can have a say.

The Equality Act

Under the Equality Act (2010) people are protected from discrimination on these grounds:

  • Ethnicity
  • Sex
  • Gender reassignment
  • Disability
  • Religion and belief
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Marriage and civil partnerships

All of these have the potential to impact on a person’s opportunities to access learning. 

It is also important to consider the potential impact of a person’s social background or class on their access to learning opportunities. Trade unions have made the greatest impact amongst those on low wages with few or no qualifications. Amongst these there are groups considered particularly ‘hard to reach’ e.g. older men who find it hard to engage in learning or young workers who did not get on a school.

Read more about the Equality Act on the unionlearn website and try our Equality Act Quiz.

Visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission website or watch their video about human rights: 


So how do ULRs go about meeting this challenge?

ULRs need to consider equality and diversity issues in their broadest definition if we are to overcome all the barriers for everyone at work. It doesn’t mean treating everyone the same and providing them with the same opportunity. Different people will have different barriers and in some cases multiple barriers, so you may need to treat them differently in order to ensure equality of access to learning for all.

To think about how people can overcome barriers and fulfil their potential, try this picture quiz by the University of Warwick with colleagues (PDF).

A key tool to help ensure you are reaching all sections of your workforce and tackling those inequalities that hinder access to learning is mapping the workplace.