Microinequity, according to Sandler, refers to the ways in which individuals are “either singled out, or overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted” based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender. A microinequity generally takes the form of a gesture, different kind of language, treatment, or even tone of voice. It is suggested that the perceptions that cause the manifestation of microinequities are deeply rooted and unconscious. The cumulative effect of microinequities can impair a person’s performance in the workplace or classroom, damage self-esteem, and may eventually lead to that person’s withdrawal from the situation.
In the original articles on this subject in the 1970s, (see references below), Mary Rowe defined micro-inequities 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.’”
A micro-affirmation, in Rowe’s writing, is the reverse phenomenon. Micro-affirmations are subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person’s value and accomplishments. They may take the shape of public recognition of the person, “opening a door,” referring positively to the work of a person, commending someone on the spot, or making a happy introduction. Apparently “small” affirmations form the basis of successful mentoring, successful colleagueships and of most caring relationships. They may lead to greater self-esteem and improved performance.
There is a difference between the concepts of “inequality” and “inequity.” An inequality implies there is some comparison being made. For example, if your boss doesn’t listen attentively to you, that in and of itself is not a microinequality. However, if your boss listens attentively to all of your co-workers, but not to you, that might be a microinequality.
An inequity by contrast is simply something (that may be perceived to be) unfair or unjust under the circumstances. Thus a micro-inequity may occur with only one person on the scene, if that person is treated in an unfair or unjust manner. (Of course it is possible and even likely that many micro-inequities support or lead to an unequal environment for people of a given group, but the two concepts are different.)
A micro-affirmation may, in a similar fashion, refer to “only one” person and does not, in and of itself, imply any sense of advantage over others, but rather support to the individual who is affirmed.
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Micro-inequities and micro-affirmations were named by Mary Rowe, PhD of MIT in 1973. She apparently wrote yearly articles about the importance of micro-behavior. The articles were originally whimsically named the “Saturn’s Rings Phenomenon” because the planet Saturn is surrounded by rings, which obscure the planet, but are made just of tiny bits of ice and sand. (see references). Years later Rowe published “Barriers to Equality: the Power of Subtle Discrimination,” The Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, June, 1990, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 153-163; and Micro-Affirmations and Micro-inequities in the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008. Earlier work in the same genre includes that of Jean Paul Sartre who wrote about small acts of anti-Semitism, and Chester Pierce, MD who wrote about “micro-aggressions” as acts of racism.
Many microinequities can be easily observed subtly in our culture today. An example of gender-based microinequity is the use of the pronoun “she” to refer to individuals in occupations that are typically predominantly women, such as nurses and teachers.
Businesses are currently focusing on eliminating microinequities as a key diversity strategy. Some experts say microinequities can slowly and methodically erode a person’s motivation and sense of worth. The end result may cost companies millions of dollars in low productivity, absenteeism, and poor employee retention.
Microinequities are also easily observable with regard to race and religion. These often take the form of language that links certain derogatory stereotypes with a particular race. Examples of such language would be the terms “an Indian giver” and “to gyp or the phrase “to Jew down.” Less obvious examples might include words which appear to have entered the language as general ideas, such as calling someone “sinister” (literally left-handed) or a “sissy” (originally a sister) or referring to “black and white thinking.”
Modern media are also responsible for the perpetuation of many microinequities. Many non-White races have been absent from the media or have generally been portrayed negatively. Examples of this would be the common portrayal of African Americans being slow and lazy and the Native American depicted as a savage. Feagin and Benokraitis also note that the mass media has also portrayed women negatively in many respects. Examples of this include women’s generally less prominent activity in Hollywood movies and their portrayal as sexual objects in many music videos. Media perpetuation of these stereotypes serves to further ingrain the perceptions that cause microinequities.
A book on the same subject was written pseudonymously in the late 1970s by Mary Howell, MD, writing as “Margaret Campbell, MD” “Why Would a ‘Girl’ Want to go into Medicine?” A doctoral thesis was written at Harvard by Wesley Profit, PhD on the microinequities of racism. There are a number of small studies at MIT from various departments; see for example Ellen Spertus, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991. In 1998, Frances K Conley, then of Stanford Medical School, published “Walking Out on the Boys,” a book about her experiences as a woman neurosurgeon, and sexism in the medical profession. Stephen Young published “Micro-Messaging” in 2006 (McGraw-Hill). Stephen Young uses the concept of “micro-advantages,” rather than “micro-affirmations.”
In recent years there has been a great deal of work on this subject, by various consultants, groups of researchers in social science and neuro-science, and leaders in the field of diversity. As just one example, there is a great deal of scholarly research on unconscious bias, and selective perception. See for example “Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women” by Virginia Valian, MIT Press, 1999, and a very comprehensive review article, “What Knowers Know Well: Women, Work, and the Academy,” Alison Wylie, University of Washington, 2009.
Neuro-science is now advancing our understanding of the origins of unconscious bias. Learning that much of our decision-making in life may be unconscious, and not even accessible to conscious review, would seem to make the subject of micro-inequities all the more important. Several ideas are regularly put forward to attempt to mitigate unconscious bias: 1) teaching groups how to recognize, prevent and deal with possible errors made by individuals; 2) insisting on collecting facts rather than opinions, about judgments that are to be made; 3) periodic review of judgments that have been made in the past; 4) teaching the habits of micro-affirmations, which may help to prevent micro-inequities from happening in the first place. (See Rowe, “Micro-Affirmations and Micro-inequities” in the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008.)
^ Sandler, Bernice. “The Campus Climate Revisited: Chilly for Women Faculty, Administrators, and Graduate Students.” Association of American Colleges. 1986.
^ http://www.magazine.org/content/files/Microinequities.pdf Microinequities: When Small Slights Lead to Huge Problems in the Workplace
^ Joe Feagin and Nijole Benokraitis. “Modern Sexism: Blatant, Subtle, and Covert Discrimination”. Prentice-Hall. 1995.
Rowe, Mary, “Saturn’s Rings: a study of the minutiae of sexism which maintain discrimination and inhibit affirmative action results in corporations and non-profit institutions” in Graduate and Professional Education of Women, American Association of University Women, 1974, pp. 1-9.
Rowe, Mary, “Saturn’s Rings II, with racist and sexist incidents from 1974 and 1975,” in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Volume 50, No. 1 (Sept./Oct. 1975), pp. 14-18, and in Bourne, Patricia and Velma Parness, eds., Proceedings of the NSF Conference on Women’s Leadership and Authority, University of California, Santa Cruz, California, 1977, also reprinted in Comment, Vol. 10, No 3 (March 1978), p. 3.
Rowe, Mary, “The Minutiae of Discrimination: The Need for Support,” in Forisha, Barbara and Barbara Goldman, Outsiders on the Inside, Women in Organizations, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1981, Ch. 11, pp. 155-171.
Rowe, Mary, “Barriers to Equality: the Power of Subtle Discrimination,” The Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, June, 1990, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 153-163
Rowe, Mary, “Micro-Affirmations and Micro-inequities” in the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008.
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