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
Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity...

. 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
Unconscious mind
The unconscious mind is a term coined by the 18th century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later introduced into English by the poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge...

. The cumulative effect of microinequities can impair a person's performance in the workplace or classroom, damage self-esteem
Self-esteem is a term in psychology to reflect a person's overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame: some would distinguish how 'the self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, the...

, 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,” The Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, June, 1990, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 153-163. Rowe published a longer article Micro-inequities and Micro-Affirmations 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

In our culture, many micro inequities can be observed. An example of this is the use of the term “she” while referring to individuals in occupations that have been predominantly women, such as teachers, nurses and cooks.
Elimination of micro inequities is the current focus of businesses as a key diversity strategy. Micro inequities can slowly and 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 millions of dollars.
Micro inequities can also be seen with regard to race and religion, color, disability, and national origin. Often, these take the form of 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) or referring to “black and white thinking.”

Modern media is also responsible for the perpetuation of micro inequities. Generally, many non-white races have been portrayed negatively or have been completely absent from the media. Examples would be a too-common portrayal of African Americans as 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, for example, women being portrayed as sexual objects in many music videos and generally less prominent participation in Hollywood movies.

Further research

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?” Wesley Profit, PhD on the micro inequities of racism wrote a doctoral thesis. For example Ellen Spertus did a small study on, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991; one of the many such studies that take place in MIT from various departments. 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” and he even published “Micro-Messaging” in 2006 (McGraw-Hill).

Recently there has been great deal of work being done by various consultants, groups which research in social sciences and neuro-sciences, and even leaders in the field of diversity. For example, high deal of scholarly research on unconscious bias, and selective perception has been done. One more example is “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women” by Virginia Valian, MIT Press, 1999, and even the article “What Knowers Know Well: Women, Work, and the Academy,” Alison Wylie, University of Washington, 2009.

Our understanding can become advanced by understanding neuro-science of the origins of unconscious bias. The subject of micro inequity becomes more important by the very fact that we know much of our decision making in life is mostly unconscious, and not even 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. Facts are collected, rather than opinions, about judgments that are to be made;
  3. Judgments made in the past are reviewed periodically and objectively;
  4. 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.
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