Sometimes people say hurtful things without realizing the impact of their words. And when those comments are tied to identity, we refer to them as micro-inequities (sometimes called micro-aggressions). When this happens at work, marginalized employees may feel obligated to say nothing for the sake of office politics and “professionalism”.
But these moments shouldn’t be ignored. How we feel at work matters. When we feel like we belong, we improve our emotional well-being, we’re more productive, more creative and better problem solvers.
To create functionally diverse and inclusive workplaces leaders need to use their own JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) knowledge to recognize and manage micro-inequities as they come up, keeping both workplaces and employees happy and healthy.
What is a Micro-Inequity?
Micro-inequities are subtle discriminatory comments or actions targeted towards members of marginalized groups. They are often manifestations of implicit bias, unintentional preferences for a group based on their social identity.
Sometimes these biases show up in everyday language through interactions that are deeply hurtful to those affected while going unnoticed by the person carrying them out — this is part of why micro-inequities can be so difficult to manage.
Why Does it Matter?
Being chronically underestimated, devalued and excluded is exhausting. Humans are social creates and belonging to groups is a need as basic as our drive for food, water or shelter.
When the slight impact of a micro-inequity is felt hundreds of times, it can make us feel like we don’t belong. At work, micro-inequities can make means staff feel unhappy, anxious, excluded, or even fearful, which in turns leads to a workplace with high turn-over, little collaboration and less productivity.
Recognizing a Micro-Inequity: Examples
We’ve all had moments of feeling excluded or isolated, but some are constantly targeted because of their social status. Women of colour have long been the subject of social bias, and in our Anima Café Women of Colour Breaking Barriers Anima CEO Annahid Dashtgard and author Deepa Purushothaman shared their own experiences. These true stories capture examples of micro-inequity faced by both.
Story One: Annahid
A few years ago, Annahid arrived on set to speak on a TV panel. Wearing a formal dress and heels, she waited excitedly for the program to begin alongside her officer manager James who was dressed in casual clothes and a backpack. Despite the difference in their appearance, three separate producers introduced themselves to James instead of Annahid, assuming that he must be the talent.
As each producer entered the room, they made the same assumption — that it must be the white man in a position of power and not the woman of colour. That it was the James who deserved their respect and attention and not Annahid. These repeated micro-inequities left Annahid feeling deflated and unimportant.
Story Two: Deepa
Deepa Purushothaman is a woman of colour who made senior partner at her consulting firm at an early age. She would often find herself leading people 10+ years her senior. But people would frequently dismiss the possibility that she could be in charge, even requesting to speak with the senior partner in meeting — with her standing right there.
“The first couple of times it doesn’t bother you,” she says, “but if it’s happening for or five times a day it does start to eat at you. What is it about me that they don’t see me as a leader?”
How to Manage and Respond to Micro-Inequities
Managing micro-inequities at work can be challenging because it requires difficult conversations. Sometimes we know what was said was wrong, but we’re not sure what to say — so we let it go. Instead of staying silent, familiarize yourself with common micro-inequities and practice your response so you’re ready the moment it happens.
Try to come us with some prepared responses to the scanarios below (click the arrow on each scanario for some ideas).
Scenario 1: Someone bypasses a marginalized person in conversation.
“That’s actually my area of responsibility.” or “You should really be talking to (colleague) for that.”
Scenario 2: Someone tries to take credit for an idea from a marginalized colleague.
“That’s the same solution I proposed earlier.” or “I appreciated when (colleague) shared that idea in our last discussion.”
Scenario 3: Someone repeatedly interrupts or talks over a marginalized person.
“I’d like to finish my thought.” or “It seems like (colleague) wasn’t done speaking, I’d like to hear what they have to say.”
Scenario 4: Someone makes an offensive joke about a marginalized group.
“That’s not funny.” or “That comment is inappropriate.”
Dealing with micro-inequities doesn’t need to involve aggressively challenging others’ behaviour. It can be as simple as noticing and commenting on these moments as they come up, whether they are happening to you or to your colleagues.
Beyond that, we can advocate for cultural competency in the workplace to promote lasting change. Building inclusive workplaces requires awareness of how our colleagues, employees and supervisors are treated based on their identities…because once we’re aware, we can begin to make a difference.
Now you know what to do… what’s next?
Equity-based education will always be the best way to build more inclusive workplaces for all employees, regardless of their identities. By learning how to recognize and deal with micro-inequities you’ll be better equipped to promote a truly equitable workplace.
For more on how you can transform your workplace into a more equitable environment integrating these best practices and more, join our Deep Diversity Summer Institute.
Deep Diversity – Creating Inclusive Organizations
Learn how to establish a diverse organization that is inclusive of, and equitable for, all people regardless of identity or background. In this course you’ll develop leadership competencies with a focus on emotional literacy including skill development in self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and relationship management while exploring how unconscious bias results in mistreatment of people of minority groups in organizations.
Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.
Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.