Stepping up to microaggressions at work

One of the first pieces of advice I was given starting out as a cub reporter in an old school newspaper was, ‘Don’t ever bring in cake,’ writes a 2to3days candidate. 

That wasn’t because I’m a terrible baker. It was because if you show any empathy or kindness in a male dominated bear pit like a newsroom, you’re likely to get walked over. I didn’t ever take in cake. 

However, I did endure, with a scant smile, an endless stream of so-called ‘throwaway’ comments on the shape of my trousers, my age, my relationship status and the way I styled my hair. I don’t believe I ever commented back to my fellow journalists, editors or printers on the cut of their jibs! I was ill equipped to deal with the rough and ready environment and naturally balk at conflict. But it’s hard to beat the raw excitement of working in a newsroom and I loved that job with a passion. 

I wish I had entered the world of work with a far greater understanding of microaggressions. Those little comments that diminish your status, erode your confidence and well and truly put you in your place, intentionally or not. 

Microaggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups

Intent vs impact

The accumulated damage caused by the multitude of these indiginities and insults over the years can truly feel like death by a thousand cuts. Intent is not the same as impact. Some people find it hard to know where the line is, and others, like me, don’t know what to do when it’s crossed. 

You hear brilliant examples of women, when they’re groped on the bus, grabbing the offender’s hand and raising it, shouting to the whole bus, ‘Has anyone lost a hand? I found this on my behind!” But most of us are more likely to silently edge away, in case we’re accused of being reactionary or hysterical. From earned experience, many of us fear a physical retaliation.

That’s clearly an overtly aggressive act, but in the workplace, microaggressions are subtle and normalised, which makes them more complicated to manage.

We asked our community of brilliant women if they had ever experienced microaggressions. ‘Too many to mention’ was a familiar response. Other women report:-

  • A woman of colour being asked, “Where are you really from?”

  • A headteacher asking a teacher if she was entering a wet t-shirt competition

  • English people talking to an Irish woman in a terrible Irish accent and telling her they’d love to go drinking with her

  • A pregnant woman being told she had an attitude problem when she explained her acute morning sickness

  • A senior leader being ‘reminded’ by a recruiter to do her hair and make-up for an interview

  • Someone from an ethnic minority told not to put ‘smelly food’ in the fridge

  • A CEO telling someone they look good ‘for someone who’s had a baby’. He followed up with, 'most mums look haggard’

Charming. But what are the best ways to deal with microaggressions at work?

How to deal with microaggressions at work

  • Pick your battles. If you raise an issue, will it burn bridges you one day rely on?

  • Deflect the insult by asking, ‘Could you clarify what you meant by that?’

  • Criticise the comment, not the person saying it

  • Take time to talk to the person 1:1. Explain objectively what happened, and explain the impact. To make the behaviour stop, people have to understand it. You could say, “When you said xx, it made me feel yy, and it makes me concerned about sharing my insights / speaking up.”

  • Too often, individuals in minority groups are relied on to speak on panels, represent groups or serve on committees to do with minority-related work. They are overloaded with these extra burdens which get packaged up by senior leaders as ‘opportunities’. Only take on an extra load that will advance your career.

  • Practice self care. Look after your physical and mental health and join supportive groups who you can share your experiences with. Having that support validates your experience. A sense of belonging is critical to your mental health.

  • Stand up for others who are the victims of microaggressions. Make sure you aren’t being complicity by not speaking up.

  • If you don’t feel able to confront a colleague, talk to a boss, HR or your union representative.

How to react if you have committed a microaggression

What if you realise, or are told, that your behaviour has crossed the boundary? Sometimes, our words are truly unintentional but through a lack of awareness or understanding, they cause offence. Listen to the person’s hurt. Don’t try and explain away your actions. Absorb the criticism, apologise and offer ways of moving forwards that will not cause offence again. Read up and educate yourself! Recommended reading includes Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge and Subtle Acts of Exclusion by Dr Tiffany Jana & Michael Baran.

Share with us your top tips on handling microaggressions with our community of talented women on Facebook and Insta!