How to Avoid Microinequities

Prior to becoming chief diversity officer for commercial real estate developer Jones Lang LaSalle, Angela Roseboro was pregnant and preparing for maternity leave at another company. She said she noticed one of her peers get positioned in a way quite different from her own career path.

The situation hadn’t always been this way, so Roseboro invited her manager to lunch and brought the matter to his attention.

“Well, Angela,” the manager said, “It’s really too bad you got pregnant because we had such high hopes for you. Now you’re on the mommy track.”

This was news to Roseboro.

“That was the first I had ever heard of it,” Roseboro said of the “mommy track.” The 20-year veteran of corporate diversity and inclusion then asked for clarification.

She was told the mommy track is the point where a woman stops being serious about her career and considers starting a family and spending more time at home. Roseboro said she never saw herself on this path, nor did she think her pregnancy would be a barrier to advancement or that she would be singled out for it.

“He never said anything,” Roseboro said. “He just kind of changed the way he positioned people.”
That position was in the background instead of a position for growth, and eventually, the self-doubt began to set in. “Is it me?” Roseboro said.

Later she said her manager was remorseful and had no idea of the effect of his words, but it was too late — doubt already had taken root. She asked herself, “Did I do something wrong? Did I not deliver?”

But she had done nothing wrong. Roseboro was the victim of a microinequity, a term coined in the early 1970s by economist Mary P. Rowe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a series of articles published between 1973 and 1989, Rowe defined microinequities as “apparently 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.’”

Such slights were the “cumulative, corrosive effect of many inequities,” Rowe said, concluding that microinequities have been the foundation for much of the discrimination in the United States.

In the nearly 40 years since Rowe began writing on the topic, little has changed, according to many corporate diversity experts and practitioners. These subtle, “damaging characteristics of an environment,” according to Rowe, can be difficult to prove, and therefore even more difficult to manage. Those exhibiting such behavior may not even be aware of the debilitating effect of microinequities on the psyche.

But within these often unconscious acts is a solution. “Since by definition we are talking about unconscious biases, it helps to bring the biases to the attention of everyone, particularly managers,” said Beth N. Carvin, president and CEO for Nobscot Corp., which specializes in retention management and metrics.

Carvin cited an article written in a November 2002 edition of the Harvard Business Review titled “Dear White Boss …,” which, according to the editors, was “a fictional letter from a black manager to a white boss describing the miasma and what it’s like to be different in the workplace.”

While “Dear White Boss …” dealt primarily with race, microinequities are not exclusive to cultural and gender differences. “It’s way bigger than that,” said Shirley Engelmeier, founder, CEO and chief inclusion strategist at InclusionINC, a consulting and training company. For Engelmeier, microinequities first have a negative impact on individuals, but eventually can have a long-term effect on overall engagement, productivity and innovation.

Overt Versus Covert
Engelmeier said, in addition to race and gender, microinequities may be visited upon any non-majority population, including certain job roles, such as a marketer working in a sales environment, or a tech-savvy Generation Y person in the midst of baby boomer managers.

What makes tackling the issue such a challenge is that “they’re dealing with a far more nuanced sense of exclusion. They may be unjust and unfair, but they’re hard to prove because they’re so subtle,” she said.

Because they are hard to prove, Mike Hyter, CEO and managing partner of global diversity, inclusion and talent optimization firm Global Novations, emphasized the covert versus overt nature of microinequity actions and gestures.

“You can slap somebody and it hurts, and it’s obvious that you were slapped,” Hyter said. “But then there’s a way you can ignore a person’s idea in a meeting, where it feels to that individual that they were ignored, but you could always deny you ignored them because there’s no way of really proving it happened. But it did.”

Hyter said he used to assume microinequity perpetrators were simply mean individuals, but he has found that 75 percent of the people who impart this type of behavior are not conscious of it and often exhibit these behaviors less often after being confronted honestly.

Therefore, these actions are not as malicious as he once thought, but are mostly caused by “the lack of familiarity with a person, or the lack of sensitivity to someone’s else’s way of hearing or receiving information.”

Engelmeier equates this to bias, which might not be intentional, but still can be hard to shake. When a senior leader walks down the hall and doesn’t acknowledge a member of his or her team, the snub may have been the result of the leader being preoccupied with an upcoming meeting. “But that doesn’t mean the impact is any less,” Engelmeier said.

Part of the solution, she said, is heightening awareness of one’s own behavior and the effect that behavior can have on others, no matter what setting a person is in.

“I might roar in one day and not say ‘Hi’ to anybody because I have a deadline,” Engelmeier said. “But I’m aware of my behavior, and then go back later and say, ‘Hey, how’s your day?’”

Minimizing the Damage
Billie Blair of Change Strategists Inc. had yet to turn 30 when she earned her first management position as the director of a mental health institution. At the time, it was a rarity to have such a young person in a leadership role, and some of the nurses, clinical psychiatrists and psychologists who reported to Blair were caught off guard, especially after meeting her for the first time.

“Once I had a nurse that walked into my office to meet me, saw me, and just broke out laughing,” she said. “She couldn’t believe that she would be reporting to me.”

While the nurse’s reaction was probably the result of shock more than humor, there is nothing amusing about the effects of this kind of microinequity. When employees are subject to these subtle slights on the basis of age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or even size, there is the potential to inflict severe personal damage on their self-esteem, confidence and performance.

“I’ve seen people who were on top of the world emotionally become small, quiet and reclusive as a result of it,” Hyter said of microinequities’ impact.

Once people lose their ability to be confident, they lose their ability to do their best work, Jones Lang LaSalle’s Roseboro said. An employee’s productivity, ability to feel valued and to honestly contribute to an organization also may be compromised.

Carvin said microinequities also can expose employers to risk, as individuals who work for the organization may break the law without meaning to. It also means missed opportunities if subtle biases keep worthy job candidates from being hired, top performers are passed over for promotions and quality employees are discredited because of their recruitment under diversity initiatives.

“Last it means an increased cost of employee turnover when employees are unconsciously treated differently, thereby increasing turnover of high-potential talent,” she said.

InclusionINC’s Engelmeier said in an employment market that is increasingly diverse, dealing with microinequities will be one of the next frontiers in how companies approach diversity and inclusion. Employee resource groups (ERGs) and cross-cultural or cross-gender mentoring programs provide companies with tools to mitigate the impact of microinequities through the power of support.

Further, individuals with tendencies to either intentionally or unintentionally offend need to be more self-aware of the effects of their behavior, “as opposed to me — the other — always having to call it out,” Engelmeier said. If those imposing microinequities on others remain unaware, however, employees should not be afraid to calmly and tactfully speak up for themselves. “Don’t react,” she said. “Take a minute, reflect. Be respectful when you respond.”

Finally, effectively using microaffirmations — “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring and graceful acts of listening,” according to MIT’s Rowe — are just as important as understanding microinequities.

Rowe said microaffirmations are ways in which managers can pay attention to the little things by leading rather than pushing, and building on strength and success, rather than fault and weakness.

With an overall focus on the positive, age and gender inequities such as those Blair and Roseboro endured would be minimized and their contributions would be valued instead.

“Part of the job when you do diversity and inclusion work is to understand what allows people to do their best,” Roseboro said. Without this understanding, “You don’t get the beauty of the diversity that you’re bringing in.”