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Micro-inequity is a theory that refers to hypothesized ways in which individuals are either singled out, overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender.[1] A micro-inequity generally takes the form of a gesture, different kind of language, treatment, or even tone of voice. It is suggested[by whom?] that the perceptions that cause the manifestation of micro-inequities are deeply rooted and unconscious. The cumulative effect of micro-inequities can impair a person's performance in the workplace[2] 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.


Mary Rowe, PhD of MIT coined the terms micro-inequities and micro-affirmations in 1973. She wrote samizdat papers virtually every year stressing the importance of micro-behavior. Originally the papers were named the “Saturn’s Rings Phenomenon” because the planet Saturn is surrounded by rings which are made just of tiny bits of ice and sand—but these rings partially obscure the planet. Some of these papers were published in whole or in part in 1974 and thereafter (see References below). A relatively complete version came out in 1990: “Barriers to Equality: the Power of Subtle Discrimination”, Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, June, 1990, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 153–163. Rowe published a longer article "Micro-affirmations and Micro-inequities" in the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008 which includes more of her hypotheses about the importance of micro-affirmations. Works done earlier in the same genre include 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.

In culture[edit]

In our culture, many micro-inequities can be observed. Examples include the casual use of the term “she” while referring to individuals in occupations that have been predominantly women, such as teachers, nurses and secretaries, and the disrespect sometimes exhibited toward fathers as full-time homemakers.

Elimination of micro-inequities is a current focus of universities, businesses and government agencies, as a key diversity strategy. Micro-inequities can slowly and methodically erode a person’s motivation and sense of worth according to some experts. This may result in absenteeism, poor employee retention and loss of productivity.

Micro-inequities are also readily seen with regard to race and religion, color, disability, sexual identity, social class and national origin. Some are embodied in language that links certain derogatory stereotypes with a particular race. Examples of such micro-inequities would be the terms “an Indian giver” and “to gyp” or the phrase “to Jew down” and “sinister” (literally left-handed) or a “sissy” (originally a sister).

Modern media are also responsible for the perpetuation of micro-inequities. People of color have been portrayed negatively; eminent people of color are less well represented in Western media. Examples would include a too-common belief that African Americans are the majority of those on welfare in the US. Many Native Americans are sensitive to the idea that "Columbus discovered" the land they lived in. Feagin and Benokraitis note that the mass media has portrayed women negatively in many respects, for example, women being portrayed as sexual objects in many music videos.

Further research[edit]

A book on the same subject was written pseudonymously in the late 1970s by Mary Howell, MD, of Harvard Medical School. Under the name of “Margaret Campbell, MD” Dr. Howell wrote “Why Would a ‘Girl’ Want to go into Medicine?”

Wesley Profit, PhD, wrote his Harvard doctoral thesis on the micro-inequities of racism. Ellen Spertus, an MIT student at the time, did a small study on, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991. This is one of many such studies from various departments at MIT.

Dr. Frances K Conley, then of Stanford Medical School, published “Walking Out on the Boys” in 1998, which deals with her experience as a woman neurosurgeon, and sexism in the medical profession. Stephen Young uses the concept of “micro-advantages,” rather than “micro-affirmations.” He published “Micro-Messaging” in 2006 (McGraw-Hill). Scholarly works include “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women” by Virginia Valian, MIT Press, 1999, and the article “What Knowers Know Well: Women, Work, and the Academy,” Alison Wylie, University of Washington, 2009.

Recently there has been great deal of work being done by various consultants, experts doing research in the social sciences and in neuro-science, and leaders in the field of diversity. For example, there is an important body of scholarly research on unconscious bias. Research on selective perception has helped to illuminate our understanding of how people see each other.

Our understanding can be improved by understanding the neuro-science of the origins of unconscious bias. The subject of micro-inequities becomes more important as we learn that much of our decision making in life is mostly unconscious and not accessible to conscious review.

Various ideas are put forward regularly in an attempt to mitigate unconscious bias:

  1. Groups are taught how to recognize, prevent and deal with possible errors made by individuals;
  2. "Active bystander" training often includes discussions of the importance of peers and bystanders in affirming equitable environments.
  3. Facts are collected, rather than opinions, about judgments that are to be made;
  4. Judgments made in the past are reviewed periodically and objectively;
  5. Teaching the habits of micro-affirmations may help in preventing micro-inequities from happening in the first place. This is especially important with respect to preventing errors in judgment that can arise from selective perception and other manifestations of unconscious bias.


  1. ^ Sandler, Bernice. "The Campus Climate Revisited: Chilly for Women Faculty, Administrators, and Graduate Students." Association of American Colleges. 1986.
  2. ^ http://www.magazine.org/content/files/Microinequities.pdf Microinequities: When Small Slights Lead to Huge Problems in the Workplace
  • 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. http://web.mit.edu/ombud/publications/micro-affirm-ineq.pdf