Discrimination comes in all different forms – and some are more obvious than others. Sometimes, it’s finding out your male coworker is getting paid more than you for doing the same job, or refusing to hire someone because they are transgender. But discrimination can be subversive too, such as a passing comment.
Microaggressions are put downs and insults that many employees endure at work every day, often from people who are unaware they have caused offence. Normally, these acts are related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. Although they may seem minor, they seriously undermine people’s wellbeing, confidence, performance and engagement with work.
With the current focus on racism after the death of George Floyd in the US, microaggressions are being talked about more than ever. But the term is not new. It was coined in the 1970s by psychiatrist and Harvard Professor Chester M Pierce to describe the insults and dismissals experienced by African Americans. Now, the term is also used in the context of sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other discrimination too.
Microaggressions are common in the workplace. Last year, the Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co found 73 percent of women experience microaggressions or everyday slights rooted in bias. BAME women, lesbian women, bisexual women and women with disabilities are even more like to experience microaggressions at work, the researchers found.
These everyday slights might be excessively explaining something to a woman in the office, who actually has far more experience. It can be a comment about whether someone “looks” gay. It can be talking about how much you loved Slumdog Millionaire to someone with Pakistani heritage, who was born in Milton Keynes. Studies also show that many women of colour, especially Black women, experience bias in the workplace related to the style of their hair.
“How you’re treated in the room, that makes the biggest difference. Those microaggressions of not being asked a question, or having people talk over you, or when no one solicits your opinion. They add up,” one woman told the LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co researchers.
A Black, lesbian woman anonymously added: “At work I’m under a microscope. I feel an immense pressure to perform.”
Even if these comments aren’t meant to be malicious, they can be extremely damaging. Often, they make people feel like outsiders and chip away at self-esteem, causing alienation and mental health issues such as anxiety. This can have a knock-on effect on people’s ability to thrive at work, which can have a lasting impact on their career progression.
So what can we do to tackle the problem in workplaces? One key solution is providing training about microaggressions for all employees, as well as an open environment where employees can talk about their experiences of discrimination.
Earlier this year, Sheffield University rolled out training for students to highlight examples of microaggressions. The institution said it wanted people to challenge “subtle but offensive comments” directed at Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, such as asking people “where they are originally from” or asking Japanese students about “raw fish.”
“As a diversity and inclusion trainer I spend a lot of my time talking about unconscious bias and microaggressions and it is always a challenge as people have to be aware and open to the fact that these things exist,” says Louise Lapish, an executive career coach who offers training in leadership and management, board development, effective recruitment and unconscious bias.
“I hear a lot of people assuming it is the fault of the person interpreting the message,” she adds. “They are too sensitive, or too frequently too much of a snowflake. The real issue with microaggressions is that the person receiving them may not be conscious that they receive them, but they still read the message. I think anything that helps build people's self-awareness and their emotional intelligence is crucial.”
“With the Black Lives Matter movement in the news, microaggressions are apparent,” Lapish says. “People try to victim-blame rather than look at themselves. It is language, it is body language, it is thought patterns. We should and must challenge them.”