Microinequalities – what they are and how to spot them

Author: Dawn Bonfield

Date published

11 August 2020

The Institution of Structural Engineers The Institution of Structural Engineers
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Microinequalities – what they are and how to spot them

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Dawn Bonfield

Date published

11 August 2020

Author

Dawn Bonfield

In this blog post, Dawn Bonfield discusses microinequalities. She explains what they are and how they disproportionally affect people in minority or under-represented groups.

What are microinequalities?

Microinequalities are usually small, seemingly insignificant and often unremarkable behaviours. For the recipient they can accumulate over time to create a much bigger problem. They have been described as ‘like being tapped on the arm. At first you don’t notice it, but then you start to notice it, and before too long the tapping is driving you so insane that you are unable to stand it any longer’. 

For the protagonist, these behaviours often represent the tip of the iceberg. They are actions that can be seen and felt but can indicate unconscious bias.

Microinequalities may also be called microagressions depending on the perceived intention of the inequality in question.


Examples of microinequalities

Think of the things that might stop you or a colleague feeling included in your workplace:

  • People interrupt you frequently, or your ideas get taken without reference to you during a team meeting

  • If you are one of very few black or ethnic minority engineers in your office and people keep getting your name wrong, or mixing you up with another black employee

  • If you are a female engineer and you constantly hear engineers being referred to as ‘he’, and doubting your technical ability

  • People assume that because you have a family you will not be interested in certain opportunities

  • If you are in a single sex partnership and are afraid to talk about your partner because you have heard your colleagues make homophobic remarks

These are all examples of more obvious microinequalities. However, they can also be much smaller than this, and include things like:

  • Tone of voice

  • Well-meaning but unwanted comments about your clothes or looks

  • Colleagues blanking you on passing


Why do microinequalites matter?

They can cause people to feel excluded in their workplace and recipients are often in minority or under-represented groups. Experiencing microinequalities can lead to people leaving the profession. This means personal distress as well as vital skills and experience being lost.

But we can change this. These behaviours are visible and they are real. Because of this we can start to understand and address them and hopefully break down some of the biases.

You can find out more about tools to deal with microinequalities in my accompanying blog. 


About the author

Dawn Bonfield MBE HonFIStructE is Director of Towards Vision and a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor of Inclusive Engineering at Aston University.


 

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