“You should try smiling more”. “Why are you getting so upset?”. “Wow, I didn’t expect you to be so good at that”. On the surface, comments like this may seem harmless or even complimentary, but in reality, they’re far more insidious than people think.
Every day, women hear words thrown around that render them invisible, objectify them, or use their gender as an insult. But as more women raise awareness on this issue and share their own experiences of microaggressions online, cue the inevitable backlash from men — accusing women of being oversensitive, and needing to lighten up.
So why is there such a disconnect between the intent of comments so normalised in society, and the impact they cause? Well, the majority of us know overt sexism and harassment aren’t okay, but even for the most well-intentioned of us, the harm microaggressions cause might not be so obvious.
Not every joke or comment at somebody else’s expense is a microaggression, even though it is technically possible for all of us to be insulted. The thing that sets microaggressions apart is that the basis of the remark is often targeted at someone's race, gender, sexuality, age or other marginalised identity marker.
For instance, when women behave assertively, particularly in the workplace, they’re deemed loud, aggressive, or pushy — while men who behave in the same way, are viewed as authoritative and competent leaders. A man quipping “calm down, calm down” as if he was in some sort of tired old Harry Enfield sketch, can be seen as a harmless joke — but when aimed specifically at a woman, it can take on a different connotation. It’s steeped in gender stereotypes of the way society expects women to act — and that’s what makes it problematic and offensive.
According to Emma Wainer, a corporate speaking coach who runs a coaching programme called Influential Leadership for Women, these are familiar stories. “Women in the workplace have two spaces available to them – the kind, appeasing, gentle woman, and the absolute bitch.” They don’t even have to be especially noisy, she noted. “If women use more masculine turns of phrase, more direct language, shorter sentences, gesture, and if they combine that with a higher pitch, they will be labelled as difficult.”
Microaggressions are not a modern phenomenon, despite their recent resurgence as a talking point on social media — and what some reactionaries might claim.
The term microaggression was coined in the 1970s by Harvard psychologist Chester M. Pierce. Using racism as an example, he said microaggressions are a “major vehicle for racism in this country [the US]”, because they are committed towards Black people by White people in a “sort of gratuitous neverending way…”
This really gets to the heart of what a microaggression is — something subtle but embedded into everyday life. For victims, they’re almost inescapable: committed in the workplace, in friendship groups and in educational spaces. Since Chester Pierce’s original work, the definition of microaggressions has since been expanded to describe the indignities across the full range of protected characteristics.
The reality is, microaggressions have been with us for a long time, we just didn’t have a way of classifying or shining a light on them. It’s probably because they’re often committed by well-meaning people, outside the immediate level of conscious awareness — and no one seemed to think there was a problem — except if you were on the receiving end that is.
It can seem like a stretch to equate an off-colour comment to an act of misogyny – but there’s good reason to see it as all part and parcel of the same system. Many researchers view offensive behaviour as a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, you’ll find extreme acts of violence, and below it other societal issues like pay and academic attainment gaps, lack of representation, harassment, bullying and more. At the base of the pyramid sit the small-scale, everyday instances of harm, like sexist jokes, objectification and strict gender roles.
You may not have witnessed overt sexual harassment in the workplace, but it is likely that you’ve been there when someone’s made prejudiced comments and jokes — and it’s also likely that you didn’t say anything either. Most of us don’t, right, but as a result what happens is that we all end up contributing to a culture — that makes offensive attitudes okay.
Remember, the core principles that underpin sexist comments and jokes — whether that be stereotypes about appearance, intelligence, ability to do well at sport, perform in a workplace, or take on leadership roles — are the exact same principles that mean women are paid less than men, are passed over for promotion, and much more.
1. Check your own attitudes
Remember that people who believe that they are not sexist are less objective and more likely to behave in a sexist way. You can test your own biases with the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, developed by the University of Harvard: Take the test
2. Be vocal
Unambiguously and consistently state your commitment to eradicating sexist behaviour and practices in their organisation. Concerns about organisational inaction and repercussions can prevent those who are experiencing sexism from speaking up.
3. Provide training
As we’ve seen the problem with so many microaggressions committed against women is that many people don’t see them as a problem. Consistent exposure to awareness training is key, if we’re ever going to move forward.