Blogs / 01 Oct 2020 8 min

Microaggressions: the silent killer in gender equality

“Sexism is not a glass ceiling. It’s a labyrinth of micro-inequities that add up over a lifetime”

  – Amy Cuddy, Professor at Harvard Business School

When it comes to gender equality, one of the most challenging barriers to address are the subtle, almost invisible everyday indignities that many women face: microaggressions. These are defined as:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative . . . slights and insults. [1]

Many will recognise microaggressions in their work life as situations where they are on the receiving end of a slight or put-down, sometimes passed off as joke, other times as an inference of their assumed exclusion from the dominant group, but ultimately undermining, and based on their gender/race or other marginalised status.

Microaggressions are often assumed to imply small or innocuous incidents, however the micro actually infers that the act is happening on a micro (i.e. interpersonal) level. The effect however, is macro and impacts career progression.

Microaggression myths busted

Microaggressions are often assumed to be intentional and when challenged are sometimes defended as not being meant in that way. This is partly true. Microaggressions generally come from moral well-meaning people who wouldn’t dream of consciously discriminating. It’s because microaggressions are mostly unconscious that they’re so difficult to self-identify. They generally bypass the normal mental checks we hold on recognisable harassment.

There’s also an assumption that microaggressions are harmless or not a big deal. Researchers now believe that the most damaging discriminations are not the overt conscious acts, but the unacknowledged microaggressions and benevolent bystander behaviour that systematically marginalises groups in their everyday life. [3]

Types of microaggressions

So what are the key types of gender microaggressions in the workplace?

  • Microassaults: are conscious, explicit actions of gender violence, verbal or otherwise. Workplace examples include bullying or incidents of sexual harassment. Most of the behaviour in this category would be addressed by an organisation’s anti-discrimination policies.
  • Microinsults: are verbal manifestations that convey disrespect and insensitivity. They are mostly unconscious and follow societal biases such as undervaluing or undermining women’s intelligence, opinions or leadership styles.
  • Microinvalidations: these are actions that exclude, contradict or invalidate the views of women such as I don’t see gender. Men who claim they always treat men and women fairly are sending a message that they’re incapable of sexism. But by not acknowledging that sexism (or male privilege) exists in society, they’re more likely to perpetuate it. This is known as the paradox of meritocracy [4].

Impact on the receiver?

Microaggressions typically set in motion a cognitive, behavioural and emotional sequence for the receiver. Cognitively they’re questioning: did they mean to be hurtful or exclusionary? Followed by should I challenge itwhat will the consequences be? Will I be supported, will it escalate? Behaviourally most people choose not to do anything. This could be due to a power imbalance in the relationship. The receiver could fear retaliation, they may be motivated to preserve the relationship, or find they ‘freeze’ and the moment passes. Emotionally recipients tend to feel anger, anxiety, and stress, particularly if they face ongoing microaggressions in their everyday life. This impacts mental health and well-being, and can lead to lower self-esteem and depression.

Breaking the cycles of microaggressions

Microaggressions thrive in an environment of cooperation. In fact, not challenging the status quo or dominant group, is one of the key messages of microaggressions. Even if only one or two people in a group commit the microaggressions – there are typically benevolent bystanders. So although many of us have been on the receiving end of microaggressions, all of us have also at some point also stood silent witness to them, too afraid to go against the group and speak out. This benevolent bystander behaviour is exactly what is so damaging because it endorses a culture of subtle discrimination and exclusion.

In order to break the cycle we need to address these components. Organisational leaders need to shift the culture and role model positive interventions so that microaggressions aren’t tolerated, and benevolent bystanders need to become allies of those on the receiving end of microaggressions.

Actions for leaders

Because anti-discrimination policies tends to deal with the more overt incidents of harassment, microaggressions often remain unaddressed in organisational culture. Here are four key actions leaders can take. [5]

  1. Environment: create an environment where microaggressions cannot thrive by practicing micro-affirmations – small but significant gestures that allow recipients of microaggressions to feel valued. Also, by increasing the psychological safety of their colleagues, particularly those who may be targets of microaggressions by making it safe for them to speak out.
  2. Supportive relationships: become a mentor to those experiencing microaggressions and provide them with emotional support.
  3. Mental checks: leaders need to recognise that they can perpetuate microaggressions and be aware of the type of behaviour that undermines, excludes or singles out marginalised groups. This means calling out such behaviour but also being open to being called out by others.
  4. Become an ally: microaggressions often go unchallenged due to their ambiguity. Leaders should observe interactions closely and ally themselves to the recipient by questioning or challenging microaggressive behaviour.

ACTION for Allies

Bystanders play a critical role in microaggressions. Like recipients, they can be unsure of how to react, can emotionally freeze, or are sometimes afraid of the consequence of challenging the behaviour. However, their reaction can change the course of the interaction. The Souza ACTION model [6] can be a helpful tool that slows down the automatic mental bypass on behavioural checks:

ASK questions that clarify the intent: I want to be sure I understand, were you saying that …?

COME from a place of positive assumption. Remember that most microaggressions are unconscious so assume the action was unintentional. I realise you probably didn’t mean it that way …

TELL what you observed in a pragmatic way and why you think it’s problematic. I noticed that …

IMPACT exploration. Ask for, or state, the potential impact such a statement might have on others. How do you think that comment comes across to women of colour?

OWN your own thoughts and feelings on the impact. I think that’s a negative stereotype and not true in my experience.

NEXT steps means taking appropriate action. I don’t think any of us here want to behave in a way that’s hurtful to others, so let’s agree that those kind of comments are unhelpful.

What about those experiencing microaggressions?

For those on the receiving end of microaggressions, confronting the person can be very difficult, especially in a work environment where there are other vested interests. But there are actions for recipients too. [7]

1. Challenge the microaggression using the Open the Front Door communication model. It shifts a defensive interaction to a constructive listening space and is based on 4 steps:

  • Tell the person what you’ve observed in an objective way. Mentally this neutralises the communication space.
  • Next share your thoughts about what happened, using “I” statements.
  • Still using “I” statements, share how the behaviour makes you feel.
  • Finally, express your desired outcome from the conversation.

2. Seek support: use your personal and professional networks as a safe space to share your experiences with people who understand and may have had the same experience. Knowing you’re not alone can provide much needed psychological support.

3. Build your personal resources: invest in your well-being and mental health. This is particularly important for those facing ongoing microaggressions. Even with the support of allies within your team or organisation, it’s important to boost your self-esteem, and emotional resilience. Exercise, yoga, meditation and therapy can all be helpful.

If each of us can change our behaviour towards microaggressions, from leadership role-modelling in organisations, to bystanders becoming allies, we will not leave the task of trying to address this inequity to those most marginalised by it.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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Finally, a special mention is extended to Louise Weston, Jonathan Taylor, and Professor Binna Kandola for their excellent work in “Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations” eBook. I have borrowed and re-interpreted a number of the concepts used in their book in the preparation of this blog.

Notes and further Reading

[1]. Microaggressions definition is from Sue, D. W., et al. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. American Psychologist 62(4), 271.
[2]. This model was adapted from the concepts explained by Jonathan Taylor in B. Kandola (Ed.) (2020). Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations eBook.
[3]. Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. John Wiley & Sons. Wiley.[4]. You can read more on the paradox of meritocracy in this article: Castilla, E. J., & Benard, S. (2010). The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(4), 543–676.
[5]. These ideas are adapted from Louise Weston’s Micro-resistance Response Consideration Framework in. B. Kandola (Ed.)(2020). Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations eBook.
[6]. See:
[7]. These ideas are adapted from Louise Weston’s ideas in. B. Kandola (Ed.)(2020). Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations eBook.