When we interact with each other, we send unconscious messages that reflect how we feel and what we believe about each other. Those micro-biases are conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, vocal tone, choice of words, nuance and syntax and can be positive or negative. For example, we might smile warmly at people like ourselves but fail to make eye contact with people from a different racial background.
In this blog, I use the umbrella term ‘micro-biases” to refer to micro-inequities—unintentional slights that tend not to specifically reference legally protected group categories such as gender, race, disability, age but which demean or marginalise; and micro-aggressions—slights that reference group stereotypes and insult, diminish or belittle the individual.
Examples of micro-inequities include:
failing to look up from your smart phone when engaging in a conversation with someone
answering your phone when in conversation with someone
not turning around when someone comes up to your desk
interrupting someone or talking over them
ignoring a greeting by an employee / colleague
not acknowledging a person’s presence
ignoring contributions made by a team member during a meeting
directing your conversation more to one person or group of people in the room compared with the others
not including a colleague in an out-of-work social activity
consistently mispronouncing a person’s name
confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
not making eye-contact with some individuals but with others
actively soliciting and favouring the contributions of some team members over others
failing to acknowledge the achievements and efforts of all members of the team
raising your eyebrows, rolling your eyes, dismissive hand gestures or sighing loudly in response to someone’s idea or presence
ignoring emails from a person repeatedly
asking a person to repeat themselves constantly because you have not listened in the first instance
being repeatedly too busy to meet with an employee or colleague
making assumptions about individual’s sexual orientation, family arrangements, gender, religion, etc. For example, “Wives are welcome” or “Women with children”
providing unequal access to the information or other resources that empower individuals to perform their job tasks
telling a woman to ‘calm down’ or to ‘stop being so emotional’
Examples of micro-aggressions include:
comments that compare an individual to a stereotype, even when the intention is to compliment such as, “you’re very intelligent, for a woman” or “your English is good” to an individual of Asian descent
making racist, sexist or homophobic jokes or remarks
questioning a woman’s choice to return to work (or not to!)
always asking the women to do the office housework (organise social events, tidy the kitchen, empty the bins, put away the coffee mugs, take the lunch order, take the minutes, answer the office phone).
The above lists are not exhaustive, but I am sure you get the idea.
While seemingly harmless as an isolated incidence, overtime, micro-biases can devalue, discourage and impair workplace performance. Further, objections are often met with accusations of ‘overly sensitive’ or ‘too politically correct’. Those responses attack an individual’s self-concept and amplify the harm done by the micro-bias.
Whatever you personally think about this issue, it’s worthwhile noting that inclusion or inclusive leadership isn’t about you– it’s about how you make other people feel. It’s therefore worthwhile mindfully monitoring your day-to-day language and responses when interacting with others and actively seeking their input and feedback as to whether your choice of language and your behaviour is inclusive or whether it excludes by making other people feel uncomfortable, undervalued or ignored.
One of Deloitte’s six signature traits of inclusive leadership is courage. Inclusive leadership involves vulnerability – opening yourself up to interpersonal criticism. You must be prepared to be uncomfortable, to be challenged, to have difficult conversations and admit you sometimes get it wrong.
Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.