For most of my life, I was one of those women who believed that all of my battles had been fought and won by feminist trailblazers in the 60’s and 70’s. I was shocked to enter the workforce at 22 years old and be in a situation where I felt slighted due to my gender in the workplace. It became clear to me for the first time why women were still having the equality conversation. The battle hadn’t been won as I’d always believed. I quickly realized that in this new culture, corporate culture, being a woman was an inherent part of who I was and would play an integral role in my life’s journey.
So there I was, sitting in a room with three senior men and the term of ‘endearment’ was dropped like a bomb.
I should have said something. I know I should have right in that moment, but I didn’t.
The air felt heavy, and I vividly remember my cheeks getting hot, but I mean…
It wasn’t sexual harassment…
He was probably just trying to be nice…
It wasn’t a big deal, right?
We’ve all been there, not wanting to make a fuss about something “small.” However, research has proven that small, subtle, everyday inequalities are infinitely more powerful and far more pervasive than the large transparent issues of injustice at hand.
Last year, to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, President Obama said, “We would dishonor the heroes who marched on Washington to suggest that the work of our nation is somehow complete.” And I agree.
Although significant movements towards justice and equality have been made, we have a lot more work to do. It is our responsibility to combat everyday injustice by recognizing micro-inequities and not only protecting ourselves, but also being allies for others. Micro-inequities can be defined as the everyday slights, putdowns and indignities faced by people of color, women, LGBTQ populations and anyone who is marginalized in their day-to-day interactions with others.
The odd thing about micro-inequities is that we hear them all the time but never pause to challenge them. In fact, in some cases, micro-inequities can even appear to be compliments.
“You’re one of the best women we have in engineering!”
“Your English is really great for a Spaniard!”
But the problem is, these words contain messages that reflect deeply held assumptions and bias. Micro-inequities exclude people of difference and as I began to research the topic I found that the implied message of micro-inequities are always the same: You do not belong, you’re not like us, you’re intellectually inferior, you cannot be trusted and perhaps the worst of all, all you people are the same.
Now I’m not going to march on Washington because someone called me sweetheart at work, but why do these things sound so normal yet make us feel so insignificant?
As I started sharing this frustrating “sweetheart” slight with some of my friends and colleagues, people started pouring out their stories. I realized that it wasn’t just me. Micro-inequities affect everyone. Micro-inequities are like a drop of water on stone; one drop or isolated event affects one person one time, but as a pattern these drops turn into a trickle and they begin to erode even the strongest of stones.
Instead of connection, micro-inequities create distance. They divide us instead of unite us. Subtle messages that disempower begin to rust the human heart, mind and spirit. They communicate to us our worth and our place in society. They tell us who we are and who others expect us to be.
So how do we overcome this? What can each and every one of us do to combat the micro-inequities that are so deeply embedded into our lives?
Even though they are small, we need to put micro-inequities under a microscope because they can leave a lasting and detrimental impact on our self-worth.
Yes, I am a woman. A strong, brilliant, confident woman…but I’m no one’s sweetheart.
There’s much progress to be done in recognizing the micro-iniquities that plague us all every day. The work of our nation, women and minority groups, hasn’t nearly come to an end. I realize now that every day we must continue to march for equality through our words and our actions by recognizing the little things, not only for our own sense of social justice, but also in earning it for others. If we all made more of a fuss about the “little things” we, as a society, could continue to progress.