Advancing gender equality through micro-actions

Written by Sterling Content
August 5, 2022


Written by Sterling Content
August 5, 2022

In each and every interaction, individuals unconsciously reinforce, accept or challenge societal norms, according to Dr Sae Oshima, principal academic of corporate marketing communications at Bournemouth University. For the majority of neurotypical people, the default behaviour is to reinforce or accept the reality they know. They simply listen and respond in a natural way to the situations they find themselves in, largely based on verbal and bodily cues or lack thereof.

But Oshima says everyone can learn to understand the significance of even the tiniest interaction and its potential impact to reconstruct long-held societal norms, particularly in the area of gender. By being more aware of the impact of what is conveyed and not conveyed during exchanges, “small moments can become an opportunity to empower ourselves” and could even “change the trajectory of our lives,” she says.

That was the key takeaway from Oshima during her interactive workshop on advancing gender equality through micro-actions, the latest in the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s Masterclass Series, on July 26. She introduced the core principles of her field of expertise, micro-ethnography or ethnographic microanalysis, a methodology to study social and cultural interactions in situational settings, and encouraged attendees to strive for macro impacts through micro-acts.

“We have the power to change things, to reconstruct normalcy, with the way we speak and listen,” she said.


Fundamentals of interactions

An interaction is negotiated by its participants, explained Oshima, noting that each verbal, vocal and bodily action leads to a reaction, which makes a sequence of miniscule events.

In her research, she analyses not only “what” is said/done in an interaction, but also “how” it is said/done. She does this by looking at the interaction’s micro-elements such as word choice; voice pitch, tone and speed; pauses, breathing in/out, overlapping speech, facial expressions, gaze, nods, posture and use of material objects.

By presenting video studies of interactions in the UK and US, Oshima showed how even the seemingly tiniest response, such as “oh” or a 0.5 second pause, can deliver different outcomes.

In workplace settings, minor decisions, such as who takes notes in a strategy meeting or when someone decides to enter an informal lunch area, can create various results for the staff and the company.


Occasioning gender

As gender equality is a core component of diversity, equity and inclusion, which is of growing importance to companies worldwide, Oshima explored how micro-actions in workplace exchanges can occasion gender and offered tips to avoid reinforcing gender norms.

“People construct reality through the way they talk,” she said, pointing out that ideas around gender create one of those realities.

Ways of occasioning gender in conversation include overt mentions, such as the use of gender indexes (he, she, they), and more subtle references, which Oshima described as “accountables, use of ‘oh’ and making gender relevant.”

Accountable means being obligated to explain or justify something to someone so, if the thing being introduced in the interaction is not the gender norm, the speaker will normally feel the need to explain or justify it to help the listener understand the conversation.

For example, Oshima introduced two video clips, one showing a woman making tea for her colleagues and one showing a man doing so. In the former, there was no explanation given but, in the latter, the narrator said the man worked at a small company whose policy was for the youngest member of staff to make the tea. This accounting reinforces the idea that it is a woman’s role to make tea, not a man’s.

By choosing whether to use “accountables” in everyday professional interactions, the speaker is therefore making assumptions of gender norms in society and either reinforcing or reconstructing them. To de-gender talk, she added, it can be helpful for the speaker to consider why they are explaining or justifying certain things for the listener.

In conversation, “oh” is a “change of state token” that can indicate a vast number of meanings. Perhaps the listener has received new information or wants to convey they are understanding the conversation.

“The use of ‘oh’ tells us how we construct information and knowledge as noteworthy and how we understand particular phenomena as unexpected,” said Oshima. For example, if a woman said her husband had taken her family name and the listener responded with “oh,” it conveys that the listener’s societal gender norms had been challenged. It might even prompt the woman to adopt the use of “accountables.”

Lastly, in the area of gender-relevance, Oshima noted that, while not all gender issues in interactions are evoked (some merely pass by), the topicalizing of issues as gender-relevant can happen “in any strip of talk.”

She shared an example from a Japanese debate show, where an incident is explored as a gender issue because of how the interviewee talks. The interviewee makes the topic gender-relevant with her verbal and bodily actions, which initially receive neutral reactions from the programme hosts, leading to the interviewee further spelling out how gendered the issue is. This then obtains an “oh” response and follow-up questions from the hosts, which establishes gender as central to the spoken phenomenon.

Analysing this example, Oshima reflected that, in certain situations, gendering can help spread awareness, while in others, de-gendering may contribute to gender equality.

Looking beyond gender, she also noted that in international and intercultural workplaces, the identities of staff may only be seen when they are evoked specifically, she added. For the remainder of the time, the company’s corporate culture might trump their staff’s divergent cultures to create a shared constructed reality.


Key takeaways

In a lively Q&A session facilitated by Anna Pinsky, former vice-president of the BCCJ, Oshima addressed queries ranging from how to apply lessons from micro-ethnography in education and corporate settings, to what is understood about neurodiverse people’s interactions using this methodology.

Oshima said micro-ethnography cannot provide people with a lot of dos and don’ts to follow in exchanges. Rather, it can raise awareness of things people didn’t notice before and remind them to notice their “moment-to-moment occasioning in everyday scenes.”

While she mostly spoke on gender, occasioning ethnicity, expertise or authority are also things to look out for, she added.

Given the vast range of resources that people use to communicate, “polishing local observation skills and not assuming what is going on,” alongside working to turn unconscious actions into conscious ones, can help people avoid accepting or reinforcing societal norms during everyday interactions.

Ultimately, Oshima said, the key takeaway is that micro-actions can make a big impact on your life and the lives of others.