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Micro-Inequities: Small acts with big impact

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

By Cathy Leonard, Cathy Leonard Consulting

Have you ever walked away after a conversation feeling uneasy, but struggled to explain why? Have you felt undervalued in a meeting even though you know your contributions were on point?

These types of feelings can surface in response to micro-inequities. Micro-inequities are subtle, often unconscious behaviours that exclude, discourage, or devalue individuals who are considered different in some way. An isolated occurrence may seem harmless; however, the cumulative effects can be anything but. Consider the following examples of micro-inequities:

  • cutting someone off in mid-sentence, dismissing ideas prematurely, checking your phone during a conversation

  • giving greater consideration to the same idea presented by one person over another, soliciting input from some team members but not others

  • avoiding eye contact with certain people but not others, sighing heavily in response to someone’s ideas, rolling eyes

  • calling women “honey” or “my love” while calling men by their proper name, repeatedly mispronouncing a name, calling someone by a nickname others created

  • greeting everyone except one person, consistently excluding a colleague from a social activity, introducing one person in a perfunctory way in comparison to others

Because micro-inequities can be fleeting, they can seem insignificant as individual events. However, over time these behaviours add up and can diminish and marginalize individuals, reducing engagement and impairing job performance.

Changing the conversation

MIT professor Mary Rowe coined the phrase micro-inequities; she recommends using micro-affirmations to counter them. She defines micro-affirmations as “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others succeed.” Some examples include:

  • not interrupting others when they are speaking; seeking to understand other people’s points of view

  • encouraging input from all team members; giving appropriate credit to others for their ideas; recognizing the accomplishments of all team members

  • making eye contact and smiling; using people’s preferred names

  • greeting people warmly and sincerely; introducing each person in an equivalent and appropriate manne

Taking the next steps

Since many micro-inequities are unconscious, it can be helpful to explore your unconscious biases—we all have them. Seek feedback on your interactions with others—are your language and behaviour inclusive or do they make others feel uncomfortable or undervalued? You could also take a bias test (such as the Harvard University’s free online Implicit Association test). As you become more aware of your biases, you can start to alter your behaviours to make them more inclusive.

If someone approaches you with a concern about your behaviour, take it at face value. It likely took a lot of courage to raise the concern, and dismissing the person’s feedback can further damage their self-confidence. Remember that, although it may not have been your intent to offend or exclude, it’s the impact that matters.

As business owners and leaders, you have the ability to influence others. The words you choose, your tone of voice, and your non-verbal cues all send messages about your values. So when you treat people with respect, the impact can go well beyond the effect on the intended recipient. You are modelling positive behaviours that others can emulate, fostering a culture of openness and inclusion.

Let’s make this fun: this week, offer a micro-affirmation that you would not normally give. Observe the recipient’s reaction and reflect on the impact. You may even want to ask them for feedback on your comment/behaviour. Let me know how it goes! You can email me privately at or share your experience on my LinkedIn page at


Cathy Leonard,

Cathy works with organizations to build diverse workforces and inclusive workplace cultures. Through consulting and training, she helps her clients connect diversity and inclusion strategies to improved business performance.

Prior to launching her consulting firm, Cathy spent 15 years working throughout Canada in the oil and gas industry, focused on human resources, diversity, inclusion, and financial management.

Cathy is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional (CCIPTM), has a Master of Business Administration, a Bachelor of Commerce, and a certificate in Leadership and Inclusion.

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