Overcoming Unconscious Bias : Micro-inequities are contagious & that can work 2 ways

Overcoming Unconscious Bias : Micro-inequities are contagious & that can work 2 ways

Posted by Amanda Furness


What are micro-inequities?

Mary Rowe has been studying micro-inequities since 1973.  Whilst working at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she devised the definition :

“micro-inequities: apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator. Micro-inequities occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’.”

Micro-inequities are also referred to as micro-behaviours or micro-aggressions.  The ‘micro’ is not used to portray them as being inconsequential but as small, almost indiscernible actions, gestures or facial expressions.  Being subtle, they are hard to prove and are used to either overlook a person, single them out or ignore them.  They are often based on an unconscious bias against a characteristic that can’t be changed, such as race or age.  Their effect can make the person they are directed towards feel they have done something wrong and are being excluded.

Some examples of micro-inequities

  • Checking emails or mobile phone messages whilst in a one-to-one conversation
  • Forgetting a more junior member of staff’s name
  • Glancing at the clock during a conversation
  • Always mispronouncing someone’s name
  • Only making eye contact with those of one sex when talking to a mixed group
  • Confusing a person of one ethnicity with someone else of the same ethnicity
  • A suggestion made being met with a sigh or a roll of the eyes

Awareness – Intent v Impact

It may be that a leader is not only unaware of their micro-inequities but also of the impact that their unintentional message has on the recipient and the culture of the workplace.

As they are so subtle, they are hard to prove.  The recipient may find it difficult to put into words and explain to others the problem they have.  However, over time, the effect is cumulative and can lead to a hostile working environment.

Awareness is key.  Although micro-inequities are negative, it is worth remembering that the same brain circuitry is highly attuned to positive gestures.  So, with self-awareness, a leader can not only overcome micro-inequities but also become a role model and spread conscious inclusion with the result of improving the working culture.

Training can play a part

It is now over 45 years since Mary Rowe coined the term ‘micro-inequities’.  Far from being eliminated from the workplace, they still exist.  Wherever and whenever they occur, they have the same negative impact.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether workplace training in inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias help to ensure an inclusive environment.  In our experience, training is effective at creating awareness and understanding but there also needs to be discussion amongst those expected to act within an organisation.  This needs to culminate in a clear plan with unique examples for each working environment.  Prescriptive training without discussion could therefore be more unhelpful than it is productive.

This is why all our trainers offer solid experience as successful facilitators and build in time within the training day for group discussion for this very purpose.

How an awareness of micro-inequities could be used

Once an awareness exists, micro-inequities are most likely to happen when decisions are made quickly and under pressure or when someone is multitasking.  In such situations it’s important that thinking is slowed down to ensure negative micro-behaviours do not return to leave any team member feeling excluded.

There will be ideas and examples which can be offered to people in each individual workplace.  However, the following are a few suggestions as to how an awareness of micro-behaviours can help to create an inclusive culture:

  • When welcoming a new member within a group setting, physically step back to enable them to have a space in the group, or draw up a chair so they can be included.
  • Use affirmative gestures and smile when encouraging someone from a minority to speak up.
  • Thank all individuals for their contributions.
  • When asking for someone’s help or their opinion, convey trust by using positive body language and active listening techniques e.g. lean slightly towards them, use eye contact, paraphrase and take notes so they know what they are contributing is important to you.
  • If you notice micro-behaviours are persisting in a team, provide feedback about the effect on individuals and their impact on the team.


“There is only one way to look at things
until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.”
Pablo Picasso


In Equilibrium offer a range of equality and diversity training courses which include the short 2-hour course ‘Exploring the Impact of Micro-aggressions‘, that is available for delivery virtually live online.


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