Three tools for handling microinequalities

Author: Dawn Bonfield

Date published

11 August 2020

Back to Previous

Three tools for handling microinequalities

Date published

Dawn Bonfield

Date published

11 August 2020


Dawn Bonfield

In this blog post, Dawn Bonfield builds on her recent piece, microinequalities – what they are and how to spot them. She explains how three different tools can be used to counter microinequalities.

Dealing with microinequalities

If you are experiencing microinequalities, or want to support someone who is, there are a number of things that can help. The key to addressing microinequalities is using tools and strategies that produce positive outcomes. Positive for you and for the person responsible for the behaviour.

These behaviours often come from colleagues and friends, and we must find ways to get to an ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ outcome. This is more likely to be successful because it leads to a way forward that is acceptable to both parties.

In general, microinequalities are very often innocently carried out, and there is no malicious intent behind them. However, sometimes this is not the case. I must stress that any instances that could be described as bullying or sexual harassment should be reported. They should be dealt with in the way in which your company officially deals with these issues.


One of the tools that can be used to address microinequalities is called the 4Ds. The Ds are:

  • Direct Action

  • Delayed Action

  • Delegated Action

  • Distraction

Direct action is dealing with something there and then. It’s putting your hand up in a meeting and saying ‘I think you will find that was my idea’, or ‘could we please use gender neutral language’.

Delayed action is where you contact somebody after the event. This can be useful if you don’t want to pull somebody up in public or if you didn’t have the courage or opportunity to deal with something at the time. You might describe how something has made you feel, or suggest a way forward. This could be done by email, or by having a quiet word.

Delegated action is where you enlist the help of an ally, for example the chair of a meeting. They look out for a behaviour and address it, rather than you having to deal with it every time. This then prevents you becoming the ‘victim’.

Distraction relates to the tactic of changing the subject. It can be useful when you do not want to be party to racist, sexist, or homophobic banter, for example.

Transactional Analysis

Another tool is Transactional Analysis. Transactional Analysis analyses the type of interaction or ‘transaction’ that you are having with a colleague, and why it might be problematic. There are generally three main states described as:

  • Parent

  • Adult

  • Child

As colleagues we change our states frequently in dialogue. We naturally use the full range of transactions (eg parent to child, adult to adult, or child to child) without noticing.

Problems exist when we get stuck in a transactional relationship we do not wish to be in. For example, this might be parent to child where a colleague is too patronising. Or it could be child to child where a colleague refuses to take you seriously and you feel there is too much banter.

A way of addressing this is to move to an adult to adult transaction. This can be done by taking emotion out of a transaction, being logical and using facts. Alternatively, a parent to child relationship might actually be useful if a ‘nurturing parent’ state can be invoked. This can be done by asking for advice and support with a problem you may be facing.

Understanding a relationship you are trying to change by analysing the transactions that occur gives you a way forward. It allows you to break out of a destructive behaviour pattern in a constructive way.

Bowtie Risk Assessment

This is another tool that allows you to analyse a microinequality more logically. It helps you frame it in a way that removes the emotional component. Imagine a bowtie. The idea is that you put the microinequality at the centre of the bowtie then list the causes on the left and the consequences on the right.

This allows you to come up with a list of actions that can be taken to address the microinequality in a more rational way. For example, if you are frustrated by a colleague who always getting your name wrong, or hasn’t bothered to learn it, then this microinequality is what you put at the centre.

The causes of this could be:

  • You were never introduced properly and they don’t know your name

  • They are lazy and complacent

  • They are deliberately forgetting to make you feel unwelcome

  • They have a problem with their memory

  • They don’t feel comfortable with the pronunciation

On the right of the bowtie, list the consequences of this:

  • It makes you feel unwelcome

  • It prevents you being introduced to others

  • People can’t attribute your work to you as they are reluctant to say your name

  • You lose morale and think about leaving

  • You become less productive and the company loses out

Finally, list the actions that can be taken to address this. Note that some of these actions will involve more work on your part as well as the part of others. To get the outcome we are looking for, we often have to meet halfway.

So actions might be:

  • You get to know one another through a team building exercise

  • You say your name to people more regularly to allow people to hear it said and remember it

  • You suggest that everybody has their name stuck to their computer monitor, or desk area

  • You include your name on each slide when giving a presentation

  • Your company provides some cultural awareness training.

These tools and strategies empower ‘victims’ of the microinequality to take positive action. They can help people let their feelings be known to those who have the power to change their behaviour.

By addressing microinequalities before they become debilitating, we will prevent their hugely damaging effect on the members of our workforce who we cannot afford to lose.

If this post has been of interest, I’d encourage you to share it with your colleagues and to find out more about microinequalities.

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.

Related Resources & Events

IStructE image 3C

Mental Health First Aid training 2024

Certify as a Mental Health First Aider through a mix of individual learning activities and four tutors led live online training sessions.

Date – 21 October 2024
Location – Online
Price – Free
Blue abstract blocks

#InspiringInclusion for International Women's Day

Date – 6 March 2024
Author – Tanya de Hoog
Career Profiles
Image of Tanya de Hoog

Tanya de Hoog FIStructE - President's inaugural address 2024

Watch Tanya de Hoog's presidential inaugural address, focusing on engineering with purpose and the importance of aligning our values for global impact.

Date – 18 January 2024
Author – Tanya de Hoog
Price – Free