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Why sexist microaggressions are holding women back at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
If you’ve ever had to work twice as hard as a male colleague to prove yourself, or if you’ve ever had your judgement questioned in your area of expertise, the chances are you’ve experienced a microaggression. Photo: Getty

Sexism in the workplace can be very obvious and easy to identify, such as groping or inappropriate language. On other occasions, though, misogyny can be harder to pinpoint — but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

If you’ve ever had to work twice as hard as a male colleague to prove yourself, or if you’ve ever had your judgement questioned in your area of expertise, the chances are you’ve experienced a microaggression.

It’s a term used to describe everyday slights and insults normally related to someone’s gender, race, sexual orientation or disability status. And while these incidents can be subtle, their impact can have a serious impact on confidence and performance.

Last year, the Women in the Workplace report from and McKinsey & Co highlighted the gender-based microaggressions commonly faced by women at work.

“Everyday sexism and racism—also known as microaggressions— can take many forms,” the authors wrote. “Some can be subtle, like when a person mistakenly assumes a coworker is more junior than they really are.

“Some are more explicit, like when a person says something demeaning to a coworker. Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions signal disrespect.

“They also reflect inequality— while anyone can be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior, microaggressions are more often directed at those with less power, such as women, people of colour, and LGBTQ people.”

Around 64% of women are exposed to this kind of discrimination, according to the report, with black and lesbian women facing an even greater variety of microaggressions in the workplace.

So what are examples of microaggressions experienced by women? According to the Women in the Workplace report, the most common issue is women having to provide more evidence of their competence than men, and they are more likely to have their judgement questioned on something they’re an expert in.

One Asian woman who had worked four years at a company told the report authors of her experience of a microaggression. “I was in the elevator and pressed the button for the executive office. Someone said to me, ‘Um, no honey. That’s for the executive offices. The interns are going to this floor.’”

Another Middle Eastern woman, the vice president of a company, added: “ I walked into a meeting where I was the only woman in a very large room of men.

“And when I sat down, an older white man from another company turned to me out of nowhere and said, ‘Could you take notes for the meeting?’ Which was a little bit odd because I was the lawyer in the room, the one doing the negotiating.”

The type of microaggression depends on who it is aimed at, too. Lesbian women are more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks in the workplace about themselves, the report found. They’re also more likely to feel like they can’t talk about their personal lives at work.

Importantly, microaggressions can be hard to pinpoint - they might be brief comments or small actions, such as interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting. In a review paper for the Association for Psychological Science, Scott O. Lilienfeld gave an example of racist microaggressions - “defined as subtle snubs, slights and insults directed toward minorities as well as to women”.

He wrote: “Compared with overlty prejudicial comments and acts, they are commonly understood to reflect less direct, although no less pernicious, forms of racial bias.

“For example, in attempting to compliment an African American college student, a White professor might exclaim with surprise, ‘Wow, you are so articulate!’, presumably communicating implicitly that most African American undergraduates are not in fact well-spoken.

“Few would dispute that these remarks, even if not malicious, are almost certainly callous,” Lilienfeld added.

No matter what form they come in, microaggressions can have a serious impact and create a toxic working environment. They might seem innocuous, but over time, these incidents and comments can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and impact mental health.

The American Psychological Association has linked experiencing discrimination with poorer health and higher stress. Research also shows that racial microaggressions can negatively impact job satisfaction and impact employee performance.

It’s important to be able to identify microaggressions in order to deal with them. In 2010, a platform called the Microaggression Project was created to allow people to post their experiences for others to read, to raise awareness of the problem.

If it happens to you, write down when and what happened, so you can refer back to it if you make a complaint to a manager or HR department. It’s also crucial for companies to take complaints over microaggressions seriously too - rather that brush them aside as overreactions, or comments that should be ignored.