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Micro-Inequities: 40 Years Later

How to overcome implicit biases in the workplace

In 1973 Mary Rowe, while working for the President and Chancellor at MIT, coined the notion of micro-inequities, which she defined 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.’ " Examples of micro-inequities include:

  • checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation
  • consistently mispronouncing a person's name
  • interrupting a person mid-sentence
  • making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females
  • taking more questions from men than women
  • confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
  • rolling your eyes
  • sighing loudly
  • raising your voice, even though the other person has no difficulties hearing you
  • mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant
  • consistently ignoring a person's emails for no good reason
  • only reading half of a person's email and then asking the person about the content later
  • making jokes aimed at certain minority groups
  • being completely unpredictable in your grading of certain people's term papers
  • issuing invitations that are uncomfortable for certain groups (“Please feel free to bring your wife,” "There is a link below to childcare options for female speakers who plan to bring their children," “There will be a belly-dancer at the party,“ "Our annual Christmas party will be held on December 18,” "Please bring pork chops to the potluck dinner")

Rowe noted that micro-inequities often had serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages, Rowe argues, it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviors can be a huge problem.

In 2013, 40 years later, we still find micro-inequities in the workplace. There has, admittedly, been a wide range of efforts to call attention to micro-inequities through seminars and workshops. But the issue continues to be a major problem at least in the workplaces with which I am most familiar, viz. universities.

One area of academia in which micro-inequities are especially prevalent is philosophy. There are about 20 percent women employed in philosophy. This under-representation of women has not changed for the better for decades, despite various attempts to call attention to the problem and illuminating possible causes. Micro-inequities have been less discussed as possible causes of the under-representation. However, they seem to be prevalent. Reader posts submitted to the blog "What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?" reveal just how widespread the phenomenon is. Some illustrative examples:

"My partner (male) and I (female) are both Masters students in Philosophy ... [Philosophers usually] ask both of us about our research interests, but they almost always ask my partner *first*."

"I [a female philosopher] noticed that the chair [of the talk] allowed each and every person who spoke to engage in dialogue with the speaker. But when I spoke ... the chair ... cut me off – I alone of all questioners was not allowed to explain my point further or engage in dialogue with the speaker."

"A male colleague once told me laughingly that a bunch of male graduate students were exchanging emails about my dissertation topic, which was so 'feminine'."

"After I was placed in the very last session of two consecutive conference programs, I started noticing that those very last sessions of conferences, which hardly anyone attends, and last sessions of the day, during which nobody can concentrate, are where most of the female speakers get stuck."

"I’m continuously amazed how otherwise enlightened people simply don’t think of women when they think about who to invite to conferences and contribute to edited volumes."

"At one of the first seminars I went to, I was the only girl. I raise an objection ... My point is completely ignored. Two minutes later, a male makes exactly the same point. The objection in his mouth is hailed as decisive."

"I have been ignored, talked over, and talked down to on many occasions. When I gave an objection to a view in a philosophy seminar, just ten minutes later, the teacher credited and praised a male student for having come up with the objection. "

"I was fortunate enough in this year’s job market to get an offer for a position at a university located in a town in a part of the US that I hadn’t lived in. To help me decide whehter to accept the position, I asked the head of department what it was like to live in that town, to get a feel of whether it would be somewhere that I would want to move to. He replied saying that it is a great place to live, and for reference, sent me a link to a page reporting how the area was one of the best in the country to raise children. I do not have any children, nor has it ever come up that I was planning to have any in the near future."

"My child had been born the previous year and I’m visiting in with a member of my dissertation committee. Wanting to share with him a great news that I my paper was accepted to a suberp conference, I said, 'I have a wonderful news, Prof X.' Prof X interjects: 'Oh, are you pregnant again?' ”

Though I don't have as much insight into the micro-inequities that take place in other disciplines or in various other workplaces, I suspect behaviors similar to those that occur in philosophy are prevalent elsewhere.

It is well-known that most micro-inequities occur as a result of implicit biases that we all possess. Common reactions to the following riddle illuminate this phenomenon.

"A boy and his father are terribly injured in a car accident. They are rushed into the hospital, and the father dies soon after. The little boy is in desperate need of an emergency operation, but the doctor refuses to see the boy saying, “I cannot operate on him, he is my son!” Who is the doctor?"

"The boy's stepfather?" or "I don't know" are more frequent answers than "The boy's mother," which ought to be people's first response.

The one-million dollar question is, how do we minimize implicit biases? Studies show that education may be the answer in some cases. Lebrecht and colleagues, for example, showed that racial biases become less significant when people are trained to recognize the faces of people of different ethnicity. The researchers first showed 40 white study participants a series of pictures of different races. After each picture the participants were shown a word that could be real or nonsense and was either negative or positive and were asked to decide whether the word was real or nonsense.

The researchers found that the subjects responded more quickly when a negative word followed a face of a black person as opposed to a white person. Half of the subjects then underwent a 10 hour training session in facial recognition that taught them to tell apart individual African-American faces. When the implicit bias tests were run again, the participants whose ability to tell apart individual African-American faces had improved also displayed fewer implicit racial biases.

The sort of face recognition training explored in Lebrecht's study could easily be made a required step in introductory courses for new hires and in regularly occurring workshops. Though it is not entirely obvious how to extend this type of training to reduce other types of biases, there probably are straightforward ways of taking similar measures with respect to other types of biases.

Men most likely don't have difficulties telling apart individual female faces. However, there is plenty of evidence that men are less attuned to the emotional expressions of others than women. It may be interesting to look at whether training in recognizing emotional expressions could have a similar tendency to reduce micro-discrimination against women.

Additional measures can be taken in the world of academia. A recent study showed that reviewers rate publications they believe are written by male scientists significantly higher in quality than identical work believed to be written by female scientists.

Double-blind reviewing is commonly practiced in philosophy. Reviewing is double-blind when the author doesn't know the identity of the reviewer, and vice versa. But even double-blind reviewing is not completely "blind." First, the editor typically knows the gender of the author. Second, reviewers commonly "google" paper titles or arbitrary phrases to identify the author before writing their review. In the sciences there is even more room for biases influencing decisions, as the reviewing process often is only single-blind, that is, the reviewer knows the author's identity.

Practicing triple-blind reviewing that would leave the identity of the author unknown even to the editor would likely help with these biases, though the 'google' problem would remain. And the "blinding procedures" used in publishing could easily be extended to grading of exams and term papers and job applications.

No single measure, I am sure, will entirely eliminate micro-inequities but perhaps by implementing as many measures as possible, we may be ale to significantly reduce these harmful inequities.

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