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Spotting and Calling Out Micro-Inequities

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Micro-inequities, small events based on subtle unintentional biases, are pervasive and can lead to discriminatory behaviour, both negative and positive, argued Coral Movasseli in her session at Women in Tech Dublin 2019. The good news is that behaviour containing micro-inequities is malleable through counter-stereotypic training, intergroup contact, and by taking the perspective of others.

Movasseli explained that micro-inequities is a term coined by Mary Rowe in 1973 which describes "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." They are based on subconscious or implicit biases that then form our thoughts, behaviours, and habits - and no one is immune, as we all hold pervasive biases, she said.

These events can take the form of microaggressions - which are everyday insults and disrespect that people of minority backgrounds typically deal with, said Movasseli. Examples of micro-inequities include constantly mispronouncing someone’s name, not making eye contact with women in the room, and confusing someone’s ethnicity for another, amongst many others.

For the individual who is on the receiving end, the best thing to do is to recognize micro-inequities, label them, and hold people accountable. The response should not be impulsive and reactionary, but rather slow and controlled, said Movasseli.

If we witness micro-inequities in teams, it’s important to recognize what happened, label it, and console the individual receiving the micro-inequities and check in on them to make sure they are ok. Movasseli mentioned that we should be cognizant that they just experienced a very painful and traumatic event that will stay with them.

InfoQ spoke with Coral Movasseli, managing director at Girls in Tech Dublin, after her talk at Women in Tech Dublin 2019.

InfoQ: What is the impact of micro-inequities on the individual and in companies?

Coral Movasseli: These incidents have serious cumulative negative impact on the person receiving the insults. Because of their subtle nature, they leave the person confused and angry, as well as ultimately in a catch-22 as the perpetrator doesn’t realise they are doing it, nor do they have bad intentions behind it, so if confronted they will simply deny it.

The individual will then feel as if they don’t belong or they are abnormal or untrustworthy. Moreover, if they are from a minority group, they will feel pressure to avoid making any mistakes due to fear of presenting their "group" in a bad light.

The long term impact can include lower self-esteem and confidence, mental health issues, or serious substance abuse.

In the workplace, it can lead to lower work performance and a toxic workplace.

InfoQ: How can we deal with micro-inequities?

Movasseli: We should hold people accountable and react in a controlled way. For example, if someone comments, "Wow your English is so good for a [insert ethnic minority nationality]," recognize this is not an ordinary exchange and label it as a micro-inequity, then respond with a comeback that educates them and also disarms them, such as by responding, "I am from here".

Formulating the right language in your response is very important, but challenging as usually we are not armed with the right way or words to react to such situations. Another challenge is that it could come from very well-intentioned people who are very unaware of what they are saying. Thereby, many times people will impulsively respond to micro-inequities or micro aggressions with a reactionary response that doesn’t leave them in control of the situation. Onlookers will also not be aware of the subtlety of the aggressions that they view the response as not proportional.

In the workplace and in society, it’s important that leaders build awareness and educate people on what micro-inequities are, how they’re harmful, and what you can do about them. This can even take the form of including workplace unconscious bias training, meditation/mindfulness exercises, and empathy training.

We can all also practise micro-affirmations, which are "small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, often unconscious efforts to help others succeed". This includes, for example, recognizing people’s achievements, rewarding positive behaviours, intentionally including people in workplace networks - and any other acts that help people thrive and feel empowered.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about micro-inequities, where can they go?

Movasseli: They can continue to educate themselves about it. I can recommend a very good book on the subject by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald called Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. People can also take the implicit bias test online.

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