How And When To Deal With Microaggressions At Work

There’s a right way and wrong way to address microaggressions at work -- and it starts with education. 

If you’re a woman in the workforce, you’ve likely encountered a sexist comment in the workplace at some point in your career. According to the Women in the Workplace report, 64 percent of women still experience these comments, with women of color experiencing them the most.

The following are examples of what I’m talking about, and all are direct experiences from women I know:

  • “[I was told] ‘I cannot interview you for this position because it requires an emotional restraint that women do not have.’ What’s even better, this was said via email!”
  • “When I've gotten upset at work (from frustration, overwork, exasperation, etc.), I’ve been asked if it’s my ‘time of the month.’”
  • “[I was told] ‘The presentation would be better if your clothes were tighter.’”
  • “Any time I’m not drinking alcohol at a conference: *Stares at uterus area* ‘Are you pregnant?’ That comment is always from males. Another conference favorite: ‘Are you [X executive’s] secretary/assistant?'”

There’s a word for these comments: microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined as “the subtle yet harmful forms of discriminatory behavior experienced by members of oppressed groups.” Over time, these actions can have a profound impact on an individual’s or demographic’s progress in and impact on the business world. Companies and executive teams can become less diverse because of this, and when that happens, we all lose. However, microaggressions often go unnoticed because the bias is so deeply imprinted in the offender’s mind that he or she does not even realize what’s wrong with what they are saying.

Change Starts Within

What we all must be aware of is that everyone can make these mistakes. The best way to end microaggressions starts with being aware of what we say—and why we’re saying it—before it’s said. Forbes writer Bianca Barratt explains this best, “The question we all need to ask ourselves before making a comment that might cause offense in the first place is, does the race, gender or sexual orientation of this person have any impact on the work we are doing in this moment or the conversation we are having? And if it does, is my comment respectful or presumptuous?”

Assessing Microaggressions

The next way we can combat microaggressions is by doing our part to end them in the workplace, but there is a proper way to go about this without getting fired or accidently creating a hostile work environment. Lashing out at someone in the moment, fueled by emotion, is usually not the way to go about solving the issue. Women in business expert, president of Tech Savvy Women and WOTC guest speaker, JJ DiGeronimo, advises to first assess the situation. If an unconsciously biased negative comment is being directed at you or a coworker, you must first observe who’s making the comment and decide if it’s appropriate to address the offender. If the person making the comment is a superior, DiGeronimo advises to document the situation. If and when you decide to go to human resources, it’s best to have a record of the offenses. Also, should you choose to do this, DiGeronimo recommends going with a group or coworkers who have witnessed or experienced the documented offenses.

When And How To Take Action

If you choose to address the microaggression in the moment, the Harvard Business Review says to be prepared to disarm the offender, for they may not realize what they said was offensive. You can challenge their comment by asking for clarification. “How do you mean that?” This gives the person who made the comment a chance to go over what they said and realize what was wrong about it. There’s a likelihood the perpetrator will become defensive about what they meant by their comment. It’s important in this situation to calmly explain the difference between their intent and the actual impact of what was said.

Again, changing these behaviors starts with educating ourselves first. Pay attention to not only what you say, but how you say it, no matter your gender or the gender of the person you’re directing a comment at. By bettering ourselves as individuals, we can collectively make the workplace a more inclusive and diverse place.

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