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Gender Microaggressions At The Workplace: A Complete Breakdown

Diversity & Inclusion

Harassment & Discrimination

Gender Microaggressions At The Workplace: A Complete Breakdown

The modern American workplace is a melting pot of employees of diverse backgrounds -- with different voices, abilities, and perspectives to contribute to their employers. Unfortunately, we are yet to achieve social equality where everyone feels treated fairly without being judged.

In today's climate of advanced human rights and heightened social awareness, bosses and coworkers can no longer get away with overtly aggressive, inappropriate, or insulting behaviors toward other employees: they can be easily sued for that!

Instead, insensitive employers and coworkers use more subtle, passive-aggressive ways to express their hostilities and superiority (including internalized misogyny) and they do it through something called "microaggressions": condescending allusions, backhanded compliments, seemingly innocuous comments based on lowered expectations, and seemingly innocent transgressions in the form of "jokes" that are easily laughed off.

Make no mistake, however: those subtle jabs under the guise of "friendly banter" are offensive to employees and harmful to overall workplace culture.

This article talks specifically about gender-based microaggressions -- what they are and how they manifest at the workplace. It also discusses how gender-based microaggressions impact negatively the well-being and productivity of employees, while sending a problematic message that everyday sexism is acceptable as long as it's indirect.

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What Are Microaggressions?

Broadly speaking, "microaggressions" are comments, actions, and behaviors that subtly communicate a hostile, superior, or otherwise prejudiced attitude toward individuals, usually on the basis of marginalized status having to do with gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, gender queer identification, age, mental/physical ability, body size, etc.

Microaggressions can be verbal and non-verbal, intentional or unintentional. In some cases, subtle offense is indeed intended; in others, the person "means well" without being aware of their own unconscious bias or condescending tone.

What Are Gender-Based Microaggressions?

Gender based microaggressions directed at girls and women are all around us, built into our world view, habits, popular sayings, and attitudes toward gender. Gender-based microaggressions take multiple shapes, including:

  • Sexual objectification. Women are frequently treated as accessories and status symbols to make someone or something "look good": this translates into expecting women to dress up, wear make-up, and smile to be "pleasing" to others. Because of unconscious objectification and entitlement to women's physical space and person, female coworkers are also more likely than men to experience touching without their consent.

  • Sexist language. Sexist microaggressions need not be vulgar to be problematic. The real offense lies in the gender double standards -- such as referring to a male meteorologist as the "weather man" and to a female meteorologist as the "weather girl". This choice of words -- to liken the male professional to an adult and the female professional to a child -- subtly communicates that men are taken more seriously than women in this field of work.

  • Assumptions of inferiority. Often, women are praised for having knowledge or skills considered normal for a man -- which, as many claim, is supposed to make them feel "special". On the contrary, being congratulated for defying lowered expectations based on gender stereotypes is not a compliment: it's condescending and demeaning.

  • Expectation to adhere to traditional gender roles. To this day, some employers and coworkers expect others to act in accordance with outdated ideas of "masculinity" and "femininity" -- and reject/ridicule any deviations from those narrow prescriptions. Counting on female employees to be "nurturing" at work, for example, is a sexist microaggression. So is failing to call transgender people and gender queer people by their preferred pronouns.

  • Environmental microaggressions. There also exist institutionalized mistreatments of women in the workplace -- such as the "old boys club" scenarios where older males "gatekeep" professional opportunities, leaving women largely "out in the cold". Another example is the wage gap -- whereby female colleagues are systemically compensated less than their male counterparts for the same jobs.

Microaggressions As Speech Acts

Many microaggressions are part of "water cooler banter" that subtly reinforce gender double standards.

The popular saying "Boys will be boys", for instance, sends the message that boys/men are less responsible for their own behavior than girls/women -- and should be forgiven for misbehaving in various ways. Such unequal perceptions of the sexes can (and do) translate into unequal treatment of male vs female employees.

The gender double standard is also observed in language used to describe female vs. male leadership, where women are referred to as "bossy" or "aggressive" for the same qualities that in men are called "passionate" or "assertive".

Microaggressions As Behaviors

There are many behaviors still considered normal in the workplace that routinely undercut female employees' value. Women are more often interrupted by their male colleagues, for example. There is also a bit of an epidemic of male coworkers/bosses taking credit for their female coworker's ideas or achievements.

There is also a tendency -- currently known as "mansplaining" -- when a man paternalistically explains something to woman as if she is stupid, even when the woman objectively knows more about the given subject matter than himself. In a similar vein, male colleagues have been known to insist women prove their qualifications -- while not demanding the same of men in the same situation.

"Benevolent sexism" is another type of microaggression when male coworkers act overly protective and "fatherly" toward female coworkers, believing them to be "pure", "innocent", and "helpless", along with other tropes of "traditional femininity" -- thus infantilizing these employees and robbing them of their professional agency. Ironically, when it comes to actual professional support and help with navigating organizational politics, female employees get less access to senior leaders -- and hence less mentorship and fewer professional opportunities -- than their male counterparts...

What Makes Microaggressions So Bad?

Microaggressions are problematic because they subtly perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes and preconceived biases -- reinforcing gender inequality, resulting in normalized discrimination and/or mistreatment of coworkers.

Gender Microaggressions Are Compounded By Other Bigotry

Social inequalities are intersectional, so it makes sense that gender microaggressions can come with other biases, depending on what other marginalized group a woman belongs to.

For example, a white woman may get "mansplained" something here and there, but a Black woman may get it even worse/more often -- because the people doing the "mansplaining" have even lower expectations toward black women than toward white women, due to their racial prejudice layered over sexism. A lesbian Black woman might get overlooked by her male colleagues altogether, owing to the additional homophobia on top of the racism on top of the sexism.

Gender Microaggressions Are Bad For The Entire Gender Spectrum

Lest we think that microaggressions only affect women negatively, let's remember that perpetuating "traditional gender roles" and archaic ideas of masculinity does men no favors either -- and male employees are not immune to being victims of toxic masculinity communicated through popular microaggressions.

For example, telling a male colleague at the company's baseball outing that he "throws like a girl" is not only offensive to women by suggesting that they are inferior at athletics -- but it also hurts the male employee by shaming him for not living up to some generic societal standard of "what a man should be". It also sends the implicit message to other male employees that they are all expected to have prominent physical prowess, even if their job has nothing to do with sports or fitness.

Gender Microaggressions Are Toxic On Different Levels Of Society

Research suggests that gender-based microaggressions carry negative impact on micro and macro levels: they are bad for both, individual people and society in general.

Individual Impact

Microaggressions can add up and start grating at a person's self-esteem, productivity, and willingness to continue at the job where they feel undervalued or attacked. For example, having their abilities systematically second-guessed has a negative impact on women's mental health, as it can lead to experiencing the "imposter syndrome", where the woman's sense of professional worth and legitimacy is rattled by self-doubt and she experiences constant pressure to prove herself to others. Such an induced insecurity can sabotage one's career.

Microaggressions often act to silence women, as it's less costly to shrink back from such words and actions than to call them out. Being that microaggressions are subtle and often pose as "friendly" remarks or even "compliments", the burden of proof of the offense falls on the victim. Adding insult to injury, many people who speak in microaggressions take a defensive stance when challenged about it -- and even double down on their offensive jokes -- making the victim's distress worse by invalidating their pain. If you are a victim, read our guide on how to respond to microaggressions.

Socio-cultural Impact

On the larger cultural scale, allowing misogynistic comments and behaviors to thrive at the workplace unchecked sends the message that offending, bullying and otherwise making colleagues uncomfortable is appropriate, as long as it's subtle and "lighthearted".

This mode of operation is incompatible with the modern workplace that is supposed to be built around inclusive culture that embraces employees differences -- and does not use those differences as an excuse to discriminate against some over others.

Don't Let Microaggressions Bring Down Your Workplace Morale!

Plain and simple: microaggressions can contribute to creating a hostile workplace, causing employees distress and sabotaging productivity. And your business can't have that!

Let EasyLlama Handle Your Company's Anti-Microaggressions Training

EasyLlama's latest anti-microaggression e-training is an easy-to-follow, fast-to-pass program for your workforce that achieves lasting results.

Your leadership and employees will walk away with a much better understanding and awareness of a wide variety of microaggressions (sexist, racist, homophobic, agist, ablist, etc.) -- having learned how to avoid microaggressions, how to "check" them, and how to be sensitive and respectful toward colleagues on the basis of professional merit rather than preconceived notions.

Written by: Maria Malyk

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