Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 153-163

First online:

Barriers to equality: The power of subtle discrimination to maintain unequal opportunity

  • Mary P. RoweAffiliated withSloan School of Management, MIT

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This article argues that subtle discrimination is now the principal scaffolding for segregation in the United States. The author suggests that this scaffolding is built of “microinequities”: apparently small events, which are often ephemeral and hard to prove; events that are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator. Microinequities occur wherever people are perceived to be “different”: Caucasians in a Japanese-owned company, African-Americans in a white firm, women in a traditionally male environment, Jews and Moslems in a traditionally Protestant environment. These mechanisms of prejudice against persons of difference are usually small in nature, but not trivial in effect. They are especially powerful taken together. (As one drop of water has little effect, though continuous drops may be destructive, one racist slight may be insignificant but many such slights cause serious damage.) Microinequities work both by excluding the person of difference and by making that person less self-confident and less productive. An employer may prevent such damage by developing programs on diversity, like “valuing differences” and team-building. The author does not believe microinequities should be made the subject of antidiscrimination legilation.

Key Words

subtle discrimination microinequities harassment occupational segregation glass ceiling inequality racism sexism