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Lakshmi's picture

The Small Stuff Piles Up

 Women everywhere are used to playing out their life in an unequal world, in their family, at worship, work and even at their doctors office. They live in a world shaped by and for men.

 Women are tuned into big and small inequities. The small stuff as much as the big ones are important. Small stuff - aka  micro-inequities - that occur across all these spaces. In 1973, Dr. Mary Rowe wrote about “micro-inequities.” She defined them as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’ “

 I’ve come upon so many stories that highlight the role that micro inequities play in the lives of women. Amrita is in her mid 40’s now, with a successful career in marketing in a computer hardware company. When she was growing up, she lived in a family that included her grandmother – her father’s mother. On special occasions like Diwali and Shivaratri, Amrita and her grandmother would take out the family’s tall silver lamps for pooja. Together they would polish them till they shone, and then pour oil in them, set up the wick and light them for the pooja. Her grandmother would often say that those lamps would one day go to her brother, since they had to stay with the family deity. She certainly never meant for Amrita to feel like an outsider, within her own family. But that was the effect of those small conversations they had in those companionable moments.

 The echoes of her grandmother’s voice were in Amrita’s head in many corporate circumstances. Amrita told me how she found being a lactating mother an excruciating experience. She had come back to work when her baby was 3 months old and she was continuing to nurse her baby when she was home. This meant having to pump and clean up leaky breasts at least twice a day at work. She remembers “Wearing a salwar kameez, sitting on the toilet bowl with my equipment on the floor, with no room to maneuver. I remember being close to tears and feeling so isolated, some kind of aberration in the work life that continued to ebb and flow around me”.

When she started her career Amrita was in sales. This meant going out to meet with customers. She often made calls with her associate who reported to her. At most vendor meetings men were willing to listen to her sales pitch, but whenever they were closing any deal, they would turn or look to her male associate assuming that he had the decision making power. It was usually just a shift in body language that the vendor used, but she said that it always worked to delegitimize her. Her associate would respond to the non-verbal shift and eventually she had to have a long conversation with him about it. Luckily for her, there was a tight chain of command at work and she was able to establish her authority successfully, and he would pass the conversation back to her regardless of what the customer did.

For Mishta, who has two young kids 6 and 8, these moments come fairly thick and fast. At a team meeting in an advertising  company that she works for she excused herself to leave well after work hours ended at a her company. They weren’t on any deadline, it was an internal organization meeting. The response she got was, “Yes of course, you are a mommy first and then an account exec”. When the same thing happened to her colleague Amrut who left early to get his child to the dentist the adulation and admiration expressed around the room was remarkable. Her boss called him a “renaissance man, upto any challenge”. Her colleagues ate it up as well and Amrut must have left feeling like a super-hero.

 What happened to Amrut was a ‘skewed’ micro-affirmation. Dr. Rowe saw micro-affirmations as a corrective action. To her a micro-affirmation is used to correct micro-inequities “Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness.” The irony is that Dr. Rowe used Micro-affirmations as a means of redressing diversity imbalances. As a way for a mentor, or a buddy system to work.

At the workplace I’ve seen skewed micro-affirmations favor men as it did in Amrut’s case. When they address women, it is often in the form of recognizing women as feminine and needing male protection. Opening a door, giving women precedence in seating or at the buffet line. All of this positive energy needs to be redirected towards correcting inequities instead of perpetuating stereotypes.

This is easier said than done. For this to occur both perpetrator and victim have to co-operate. When a victim does speak up, perpetrators often dismiss the victim as being thin-skinned and having little humor. Women have been told “Tu itna serious kyon banti hai?” Or, ”It isn’t personal, it’s just an expression” For the victim, the moment demonstrates vividly the belief system inherent in that moment, the perpetrator doesn’t want to or genuinely can’t acknowledge this because he has been socialized not to.

 The way to address this in the workplace needs effort. You can’t possibly power-point your way out of micro-inequities in a Sensitivity training session. It requires placing men and women in settings where inter-personal dynamics can be examined. One way to address this is to collect anecdotes from within the organization or a network and retell them in a group where you have both sides of the micro-inequities present. Role-play is often powerful. Storytelling using visual images is effective. The trainer could hand out a set of visuals and ask people to write up a story about the image. A man and woman working together; A picture of a successful man, a successful woman.  Stereotypes are often revealed through these exercises.

Another way forward, as a first step, is a basic one. Women in the workplace need to network, create communities where they advocate for themselves. Find out from each other what Diversity and Inclusivity practices would work for their organization culture and become champions of that change.


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