Albert Stern investigates microinequities, “the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome of the civil rights movement.”
I was encubicled in the corner of corporate Hades, where I used to work, when I received an email from the Executive Diversity Council alerting me that a seminar on something called “microinequities” would be offered in the near future.
Like other large institutions on Wall Street, the company had initiated a diversity campaign a few years prior, but the effort often seemed forced—possibly because it had long been a ethnically diverse workplace, where people more or less get along. The harmony seemed to be a byproduct of city living rather than H.R. Department engineering, and maybe for that reason it confounded management.
I attended my former employer’s mandatory diversity workshop a few years back, but afterward I confined my participation in the corporate inclusion program to judging persons not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Just doing that caused me trouble enough, thank you.
Microinequities, however, piqued my interest. To begin with, nowhere in the email was it implied that the macroinequities of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth had been remedied or even assuaged, thereby allowing us the luxury of turning our attention to the elimination of microinequities.
Then there was the novelty of the term—it’s a triumph of branding, as catchy as “Splenda” or “Celebrex,” a neologism with an allusive sound but an elusive meaning. But what really got me was the citation in the email of recent studies that apparently prove that diversity “impacts profits and productivity,” signaling that Corporate America’s participation in the movement was now vital. As someone who has suckled at the corporate teat for years, the reference to the bottom line left a familiar taste in my mouth.
To prepare for the microinequities seminar, it was suggested that everyone read an article reprinted from Chief Learning Officer Magazine called “Diversity Training and Microinequities: Ensuring All Voices Are Valued.” According to the article, the term “microinequities” was originally coined by Mary Rowe, ombudsperson and adjunct professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
At the outset of her studies, Rowe had expected to find that the chief concerns in the workplace for people of color and for women would be big things—pension plans, dependent care support, and so forth.
“Of course, those things all do matter, but I also heard from a great many visitors to my office about apparently little things—the kinds of things you could not take to a grievance procedure, and you maybe weren’t sure it even had happened,” Rowe said. “The classic example was having one’s name left off a list or a supervisor that would go around the room giving out assignments who skipped the one nontraditional person in the room.”
You maybe weren’t sure it even had happened. Here is the first premise that the diversity professional must establish—that there is something going on that is not readily grasped, and that a class of authorities is necessary to identify and validate these possibly nonexistent, to use Rowe’s word, “things.” (And what, exactly, is a nontraditional person? I say we limit that designation to the little Floresians, mysterious three-foot tall hominids who, perhaps as recently as 18,000 years ago, lived on a remote island in the South Pacific. Calling them “nontraditional” persons is just giving the tiny buggers their due. As for us in the corporate world, let’s just accept that each one of us is a traditional person of one stripe or another.)
The article goes on to say that Rowe wrote her paper on microinequities in 1973, but first published it only in 1991. It only took Werner Heisenberg one year of contemplation to formulate a theory and publish a paper on the uncertainty principle, but I’ll give Dr. Rowe the benefit of the doubt: maybe microinequities are to social injustice what a quark is to a physicist, a hypothetical particle of which all other particles are composed.
About 75 employees attended the company’s microinequities seminar. The first person to speak was a stand-in for the CEO, a traditional person named Bill who is the third-ranking officer in the company. He started out by encapsulating what the diversity project had come to mean to him. “Inclusion,” he said, “is all about enhancing performance. It starts with the individual and benefits the company.”
Bill explained that diversity is being taken to the next level, beyond gender and race. “What I’ve come to realize,” he added, “is that a leader with inclusion and microinequities is really like a therapist. And that’s what management is about—getting people excited.”
I was excited. Past the point of confusion, beyond disbelief, but excited. Building to a crescendo, Bill said: “A friend of mine is about to get out of rehab… for, um, alcoholism. In rehab, he’s going to receive therapy, but all he’s really going to get are the tools to get better. When he gets out, these tools must be re-enforced every day. Because, like you’ve heard, a fool with a tool is still a fool. The Diversity Council can only give us the tools to change. We need to find the will to change. We have to be therapists for one another. Thank you.”
Damn, I thought, Bill must be Tivoing Oprah.
The featured speaker was Stephen Young of Insight Education Systems, a small-framed man with irresistible stage presence. He opened the seminar titled, “Microinequities: The Power of Small,” by citing the authoritative work of Dr. Rowe, and then said that in terms of diversity and inclusion issues, “We’re managing elephants while ants walk by. We’re being overrun by millions of ants!” The real core of the course wasn’t microinequities, per say, but micromessaging, which is “the meaning that wraps itself around words.”
He flashed a slide that read: “I didn’t say she stole the book.” Then, displaying an actor’s facility with facial expressions, he inflected different words in the sentence (“I didn’t say she stole the book”; “I didn’t say she stole the book”). After the laughter died down, he said: “You see how words pale in comparison to the micromessages?”
People were smiling and nodding in agreement. “Now there’s also such a thing as microadvantages,” he continued, his expression turning grave. “We send out more micromessages to people we like than to those we don’t. So if you’re not getting messages… that’s a message!”
Steve Young spent fifteen entertaining minutes establishing that people communicate non-verbally, but for the microinequities hook to work, he had to couch that obvious fact in the argot of victimology—and suggest that microinequities have a concomitant effect on the corporate bottom line.
If the psychotherapeutic culture was not inured in all of us, microinequities would be a much harder sell. The writer of the article in Chief Learning Officer Magazine quotes Brigid Moynahan, founder of a leadership training program, to explain what microinequities are. “They’re subtle, and they’re often semiconscious,” she explained, “which makes them unbelievably powerful.” Subtle, semiconscious, and powerful. Put that together with Dr. Rowe’s “and you maybe weren’t sure it even had happened,” and you’re in the microinequities business.
What microinequities seem to encompass, as much as anything else, is that vague feeling that we aren’t receiving our due—an “imagined slight,” to use an old-fashioned term. Experts in the field seem to be saying that objective proof of either intention or consequence is unnecessary—only that the individual, ideally the nontraditional person, feels something is not right. Looked at that way, microinequities might just be the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome of the civil rights movement.
Microinequitarians have to sell the idea that non-verbal cues reveal our true natures, that personal morality and the law of the land are not enough to ensure equitable social intercourse in the workplace. In the article, Brigid Moynahan lays bare the key assumption of the entire diversity project: “As human beings, we don’t really know how to value difference; we know how to reject it… And we do it not by overt acts of discrimination, but by the subtle stuff that we may not even be conscious we’re doing.”
This is a stunning assessment of human nature, completely unsupported and yet proffered with the certainty of a Calvinist waxing on mankind’s sinful essence. She continues: “Organizations are spending billions in this diversity industry to get people to start valuing each other, but our daily behaviors want to devalue and exclude.”
That’s the money quote, folks—microinequities put bread Moynahan’s table as a new product in a multibillion-dollar industry that exists because human beings want to do wrong in their daily lives. The business model of this “industry” is revealed by Dr. Mary Rowe: “Remember that the phenomenon, if you believe it’s there, is subjective in its being, so it’s very hard to prove that anything ameliorates the problem of microinequities.” Translation: “Experts” like Rowe, Moynahan, and Steve Young will have jobs forever to help corporations police this subjective, intractable “problem.”
Call me old fashioned—I still like my rhetoric about social injustice to suggest that something more than the corporate bottom line is at stake, to include a bit of provocation like, “They can kill a man but they can’t kill an idea,” or even “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.”
Nobody is going to storm the barricades after hearing Dr. Rowe’s rallying cry: “Micro-harassment, micro-aggressions, and microinequities are a negative distortion!” But then, the corporate consumers of microinequities do not want any barricades stormed—they just want to keep the riff-raff in line, make some money, and still feel good about themselves.
And in that case, as Brigid Moynahan says, “it’s helpful to learn how to interrupt unacceptable behavior.”