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Behavioral Science

The quiet discrimination of microinequities: A Q&A with Adjunct Professor Mary Rowe

In 1973, Mary Rowe coined the term microinequities to identify the quiet, systematic, sometimes hostile, but often unintentional discrimination of being overlooked, ignored, excluded, or “dissed.” The term is an extension of microaggression theory.

Recently, the Mary Rowe Fund for Conflict Management was established to support Rowe’s research and develop case studies, exercises, simulations, and conferences exploring organizational conflict management. The fund was established by a gift from Jean-Jacques Degroof, SF ’93, PhD ’02, and his wife Valeria Degroof.

Rowe, an adjunct professor at MIT Sloan, discussed gender equity and racial equity in organizations, microinequities and microaffirmations, and the importance of an organizational ombudsman, a role she held at MIT for 41 years.

What are effective ways to improve gender equity and racial equity in organizations?

I believe that no one initiative can be shown to work on its own. Instead there is a set of actions, taken together, that appear to make a measurable difference: Top management backing and a senior champion for diversity and inclusion who never gives up; one-on-one recruitment of the best candidates; an explicit mentoring framework; peer networks and affinity groups; an integrated conflict management system; flexible hours and other work/family supports; and consistent training for managers.

You first discussed microinequities in 1973. More than 40 years later, have you found a solution or counter-balance to this type of discrimination?

I believe that there is a whole spectrum of microinequities. These injurious actions range from microaggressions that are hostile, to inequities arising from unconscious bias, to those that arise from negligence, to those that come from just “not knowing what one needs to know about” other people — that is, from “innocent ignorance.”

Dealing with microinequities requires our understanding of what makes us all behave in little ways that injure and are unfair. I believe microaffirmations can help all of us to prevent and also remediate microinequities — including microaggressions.

You have said effective conflict management systems usually need a “zero barrier” office — an organizational ombudsman. How do ombuds serve organizations and their people?

I believe it is often hard for managers and employees to decide what to do about unacceptable behavior. In real life many people are afraid to act much of the time. Many are afraid even to take note of exemplary behavior. It helps to talk with an ombud who offers nearly complete confidentiality. In addition, an ombud can offer sustained, unflagging attention to ever-recurring problems like racism, gender discrimination, abuse, and retaliation.

Ombuds also help to identify and communicate to managers about new problems and issues, and about exemplary innovations. Finally, it is actually difficult to integrate a conflict management system. Ombuds help to provide informal and largely invisible coordination for all the units in a conflict management system.

You have noted that management theories deal with employees, managers, supervisors, teams, and top leaders but have offered fewer ideas about the roles of peers and bystanders. Are bystanders less important?

Bystanders are hugely important. Anyone who knows a teenager has noticed the importance of peer pressure, and research shows that almost all of us are very sensitive to the behavior of those around us. The role of responsible bystanders in dealing with unacceptable behavior and in finding exemplary behavior is just beginning to be explored.

Bystander research is very complicated. Maybe the short answer is that organizations need a strategic systems approach for bystanders, as in all other areas of management.

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