During the U.S. vice presidential debates in 2020, Kamala Harris said, "I'm speaking," whenever Mike Pence interrupted her or talked over her, a response that seemed to resonate with working women who personally identified with the situation.
"The research is pretty clear: While both sexes interrupt, men talk and interrupt more often. And when a woman complains or stands up for herself, she's more likely to be negatively viewed than her male peers," says Joanna Wolfe, a teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon.
What is a 'microaggression'?
A microaggression is a "comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group."
Lean In reports that 64% of working women experience microaggressions. For example, women are required to provide more evidence of their competence than men and are more than twice as likely to have been mistaken for someone in a less senior position.
In addition, Lean In finds that 71% of lesbian women have dealt with microaggressions and one-third report they don't feel like they can talk about themselves or their life outside of work. And, 40% of Black women say they have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise, while 23% of Latinas report being addressed in a less-than-professional way. For Asian women, 36% say they need to provide more evidence of their competence.
Occurrences of sexism and racism can be blatant, such as a male colleague saying a woman isn't "smart enough" to do the work or should be home taking care of children. But other types of microaggressions can be more subtle but just as damaging because they "signal disrespect," Lean In says.
How to identify a microaggression
There are some clear instances in which a woman can experience discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, at the hands of her colleagues. Here are some examples of microaggressions against women:
- Mentioning that a woman must be "hormonal" when she asserts her opinion or doesn't agree with someone else.
- Asking uninvited questions about a Black woman's hairstyle or touching it without permission.
- Commenting how "lucky" a woman of color is to get a promotion or job opportunity or assuming a white woman on a team is the leader.
- Assuming a Latina woman is part of the cleaning crew and asking her to bring coffee or clean up an office.
- Avoiding a restroom when a transgender woman uses it, refusing to sit near a trans woman, and excluding the trans woman from conversations.
How to address microaggressions at work
When you're the target of a microaggression, it can be difficult to know what to do — if anything. However, if the situation is making you uncomfortable or impacting your experience at work, consider doing one of the following:
- Ignore it.
Consider whether addressing the situation is worth what you will go through emotionally to confront it. If you believe the incident was a one-off error in judgment or an honest mistake on the part of a colleague that likely won't happen again, saying nothing is an option. However, if the incident threatens to harm a professional relationship, or the incident in question was serious, avoiding it is the wrong response.
- Speak up.
While immediately responding can help correct the bad behavior, it can be risky because the other person might get defensive. Many women fear that saying something about a microaggression will give them a reputation for being a troublemaker or a whiner. If you choose to speak up, you should acknowledge your feelings of confusion or embarrassment clearly and in the moment. If it's anger you are feeling, it's best to address the other person later to express your feelings more calmly.
- Talk later.
By talking to the person later, you allow the other person to reflect and consider their comments. Start by explaining that you understand that the conversation might make the person uncomfortable but that what was said was uncomfortable for you. Explain that your goal is to clear the air. Stay calm and professional, regardless of the other person's reaction.
- Take it to the next level.
Human resource experts recommend that since microaggressions are often subtle, they might not be clearly evident to the company leadership. It's recommended that if having a conversation with the offender about the microaggression doesn't result in progress and the problem persists, it's worth talking to another member of the team or a supervisor to explain the issue. In addition, some workplaces have adopted appropriate codes of behavior, and violating them may be dealt with by company leadership. Employees do have the right to go to an employment law attorney for any kind of hostile or discriminatory behavior at work.