Over the years, awareness of discrimination has increased significantly. Almost everyone will (hopefully) be able to spot direct discrimination when they see it. For example, subjecting a gay worker to homophobic abuse, sacking a woman as soon as she announces her pregnancy, or telling a Muslim colleague that her hijab “made her look like a terrorist” (as was alleged in a recent Employment Tribunal claim).
Indirect discrimination can often be more difficult to recognise. It occurs where apparently neutral criteria detrimentally impact one group more than another. But right-minded employers are on the case, routinely providing diversity training to managers and decision-makers to root out unfairness in organisational policies, procedures and outcomes.
But one diversity issue that fails to receive sufficient attention is that of “micro-inequities”. MIT Professor Mary Rowe originally coined the term in 1973 to identify “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognised by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different”. These messages can take the shape of looks, gestures or tones of what is said or written and can have a significant and detrimental impact on corporate culture.
Micro-inequities happen all the time. Sometimes, neither the perpetrator nor the victim is aware of it. Examples of micro-inequities include:
- “Mansplaining” (explaining something to a woman in a patronising or condescending way, even if it is not intended)
- “Manterrupting” (when men interrupt women much more than they interrupt another man)
- Checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation or meeting
- Consistently mispronouncing a person's name
- Making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females
- Taking more questions from men than women during a meeting
- Confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
- Raising your voice, even though the other person has no difficulties hearing you
- Mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant
- Consistently ignoring a person's emails for no good reason
- Crossing one’s arms when listening to a comment from a colleague
- Continually interrupting or completing sentences for people
- Only reading half of a person's email and then asking them about the content later
- Issuing invitations that are uncomfortable for certain groups (for example, “Please feel free to bring your wife” or "There is a link below to childcare options for female speakers who plan to bring their children").
Because the impact of each separate act is minor, it often goes unnoticed. But the cumulative impact can be significant when felt by an entire workforce and over a sustained period of time.
Why micro-inequities are an HR issue
The legal ramifications of micro-inequities are, at best, debatable. A single instance of the sort mentioned above would be very unlikely to be sufficient to infer discrimination. Even if it were, the amount of compensation would most likely be minimal. That said, the cumulative harmful effects of micro-inequities over time can create hostile work environments in which more clear cut (and litigable) discrimination claims may be tenable.
What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are difficult to recognise for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When the victims do recognise the micro-messages, it is hard to explain to others why these small behaviours can be a huge problem. Yet the cumulative effect of micro-inequities often leads to damaged self-esteem and, eventually, withdrawal from others in the workplace. This has knock-on effects for the business, such as falling productivity and revenue and increased staff turnover.
How to tackle micro-inequities
Mary Rowe suggested “micro-affirmations” as one antidote to micro-inequities. In the same way as micro-inequities, micro-affirmations can be subtle, covert and unconscious. Examples include:
- Consistent feedback that builds on strengths and corrects weaknesses
- Support when others are in distress (for example, where a project falls through, a major deadline is missed or a project bid is lost)
- Generous acts of listening (especially when the listener is busy)
- Gestures of inclusion and acts demonstrating caring
- A simple nod, smile or eye contact.
Employers should encourage affirmation of the achievements of others. If people always look for excellence in the work of others and acknowledge it when they see it, not only will this help motivate others but it might also work to block unconscious biases and prevent them from recurring.
Educating employees about the damaging consequences of micro-inequities will raise awareness. People need to be able to spot when somebody is ignored, interrupted or introduced incorrectly. When micro-inequities are identified, people should be ready to step in. They will, however, need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to understand the best way to do so – to step in, speak up and include those who are excluded while also ensuring no-one is blamed. Managers should pay attention to the small things and avoid bystander apathy.
In recent years, some employers have attempted to tackle micro-inequities - Intel and Vox being notable examples - but they are few and far between. As with many issues, leadership is critical. Research suggests that people are sensitive to the morale and happiness of those around them, and especially aware of the behaviour of a manager. If managers, bystanders, and others become role models for affirming behaviour, others are likely to follow, enabling micro-affirmations to cascade through the business.