By Bradley Wilkinson, Senior Consultant, Delta Concepts Consulting, Inc.
The small stuff won’t kill you, but death by a thousand cuts is no way to live.
As a facilitator of adult learning, I regularly conduct workshops. Recently, I overheard a female participant push back on her otherwise all male small group. The exercise invited them to capture their ideas on chart paper and to be prepared to share with the larger group.
“You guys always make me do the writing and presenting!” she said. As I approached the group, a couple of her male colleagues replied, “We do not!” To which another woman across the room with another group that worked regularly with them said, “Yes they do!” It was a perfect learning moment for our topic of unconscious bias.
Our beliefs and biases drive our behavior. Some of those behaviors we’re aware of and some we’re not. This woman, and at least one of her female colleagues, were well aware of the bias and the resulting behavior it created. Her other male colleagues were blind to it, and, until that moment, were blind to their blindness.
The behavior, expecting women to automatically handle group processes or “organizational housekeeping,” is a micro inequity.
What is a Micro Inequity?
Mary Rowe of MIT is often credited with creating the term “micro inequities,” building on the work of Chester Pierce on “micro aggressions.” Rowe defines micro inequities as “small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’.” Some key words here are “small” and “ephemeral” – meaning these behaviors are so subtle and fleeting that they can be difficult to recognize, particularly by the person exhibiting them.
Perhaps that’s why, when a micro inequity is pointed out, the response you get sounds like, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Or, “That’s not what I intended.”
Examples of Micro Inequities include:
- Introducing one colleague with glowing accolades, the other with just a name
- Pecking away at a smartphone while someone is trying to have an important conversation
- Leaving someone out of social gatherings
- Feeling like your opinion isn’t as valued and you have to push to get heard
- Cutting off someone in mid-sentence
- Phrases like: “What she’s really trying to say is,” or “No, where are you really from?”
- Expecting others to accommodate your time zone
- Calling you by a nickname that you didn’t share and others created
- Facial expressions like sighing heavily or rolling eyes
- Omitting someone from an important communication
- Using acronyms others don’t understand
- Being impatient because of an accent, or speaking fast or not enunciating with someone in a language that is not their primary language
Micro Inequities Impede Productivity
If these inequities are so small, why can’t the people on the receiving end simply “get over it”? Shouldn’t they “toughen up” and stop being “so sensitive?”
Don’t think of it as sensitivity; it’s about productivity. If we believe inclusive workplaces are key to productive workplaces, it’s important to look for ways to continuously improve, not only in the results we deliver, but also in how we engage and interact as we produce those results.
I think it’s helpful to think of micro inequities as causing a series of “tiny cuts” – each requiring a Band-Aid. Now imagine if during your work day, you saw colleagues with Band-Aids on them from time to time. And what if you started to see a pattern around who had them and who didn’t. Some people have to endure these tiny cuts, while some people get away without a scratch.
Wouldn’t you want to do something about it? I would.
Some tips to keep in mind:
- If you are the receiver of a micro inequity, ask the person if you can give them some feedback, and if they say no, ask them when might be a better time. Also think about where you give the feedback – often sharing micro inequities is better done in private. Ask yourself, if I did something that negatively impacted someone I was working with, how would I like to receive that information?
- Assume positive intent, or at least, do not assume negative intent. Although it can be challenging to be on the receiving end of these behaviors, remember Mary Rowe’s findings that many are unintentional. I tend to start by saying something like, “You may not have noticed …” or, “You probably didn’t mean it …” before I describe what I experienced.
- Describe the behavior using non-judgmental, non-evaluative, behavior-based language. For example, it’s much more helpful to say, “I noticed when I began speaking you let out a big sigh and rolled your eyes,” than it is to say something like, “I noticed when I began speaking that you completely dismissed me.” The former describes the behavior while the later describes the impact of that behavior on you. It is important to separate the behavior from its impact.
- After you describe the behavior, share how the behavior impacted you. Often the conversation ends here – especially if the other person didn’t intend to have a negative impact.
- Ask them to interpret their own behavior, preferably by asking questions such as, “Did you notice it?”; “Is that what you meant?”; “Can you share what was going on for you in that moment?”
- When both of you feel heard, talk about how you can work together going forward. If you have a suggestion for addressing the behavior, offer it. Like the woman in my workshop – she ultimately suggested the group rotate group writing and presenting responsibilities.
- It might also be helpful to thank the person for listening to your feedback and being open to change.
Think of micro inequities as an opportunity to practice assertive communication. I hope you don’t have to endure a bigger inequity, but if you do, perhaps you’ll have a more solid foundation from which to advocate for yourself.