“Act Like A Lady:” Women and Microaggressions

Did you know a woman can be sexually active while not using birth control and not trying to get pregnant?  

Dr. Susan Shaw, Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University writes that this is a conversation often had between lesbians and their gynecologists. The assumption is that if women are having sex, there must be a chance of getting pregnant. Meaning lesbians must come out to their doctor, even if they don’t want to.  

Women in general face many such assumptions – often based on their race, sexuality, class, gender identity, disability, and age. Shaw said that women of color are assumed to be less competent in the workplace, older women may be glanced over in their job, and a trans woman may be told that she “looks like a real woman,” thus inferring she is not. 

These intersections mean that along with being a woman and dealing with sexism, a person may also have to deal with racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and ageism.  


Dr. Aurora Sherman, Associate Professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU, writes that a microaggression is a stressor “that impacts people who hold one or more marginalized status elements. These can be insults, behaviors that are insensitive, or any way that hostility is conveyed to a target person because of the target’s membership in a protected class of people, but are usually subtle, even casual.” 

Sherman said that microaggressions are painful to whomever they are aimed at because, “the behavior comments on or uses stereotypes about the group(s) and is linked to discrimination against that group.” In addition, the person saying these things may not even be aware of the history behind what they are saying, making the comments more hurtful and frequent. 

Because of where microaggressions come from, Shaw believes they are not the problem.  

“They are a symptom of larger systems of oppression,” Shaw said, “and they serve that system by reminding people that they are outsiders and interlopers, by continuing the dehumanization of people who are not the dominant norms, by masking bias and structural injustice in these less overt but equally harmful experiences, by reinforcing stereotypes, misinformation, and falsehoods, and by discouraging the people targeted by microaggressions.”  

They also affect the emotional and physical health of those dealing with them.  

The Health Implications 

Microaggressions are defined as stressors in psychological health literature, and as such are linked to depression, anxiety, and health risk behaviors, Sherman said, explaining that the effects of a microaggression are cumulative. No one stressor might be the cause of stress-induced health issues, but that is what they could result in when compiled. In that way, microaggressions can cause as much harm as macro-aggressions. 

It wears on women over a lifetime. Of course, many women don’t know any different, and so may not even notice because these things are such an accepted part of the culture,” Shaw said.  But they are a constant reminder of women’s place within patriarchy. So much focuses on women’s appearance, women defined as in relation to a man, women as lesser than. Microaggressions diminish women. They put women in their place. 

For women, these could include being called “honey” instead of their name, being called Mrs. instead of Dr., being referred to as a “girl,” having their appearance be focused on rather than their accomplishments, being constantly talked over or interrupted, and so much more 

Perpetrators and Motivations 

While men are often thought of as the main perpetrators of sexist microaggression, women can also participate.  

Sherman said that sexism is steeped in many cultures and gets internalized by everyone. This internalization may be both conscious and subconscious.  

I think that the research is still getting worked out on these roles, however, because much of the impact of microaggressions come from the casual, even unintentional nature of them, implicit bias encoded as entitlement (to touch, to speak without awareness, etc.) is likely to be a main driver for the aggressor,” Sherman wrote.  

Shaw said that many people do not even think they are doing something harmful.  

Many people who commit microaggressions do so out of implicit bias rather than conscious prejudice or ill intent because these notions are so deeply embedded in the fabric of patriarchy that many people have never thought about them or their effects on women and in maintaining patriarchy,” Shaw said. 

Shaw used the example of someone using the address Mrs. and explained that they often think they are being polite. “But that assumes many things—that a woman is married; that she’s married to a man; and that she took her husband’s name—all ideas that come from and reinforce patriarchal notions of womanhood.” Sometimes, people think they are complimenting a woman, but ultimately end up making her feel singled out because that would never be said to a man.  

Reducing Microaggressions 

Shaw recommends remembering this when bringing it up with someone. “Start by assuming the best of people—they didn’t know and didn’t intend to offend—and then educate them.” 

This is a more individualized approach to solving the problem. 

Sherman explains that changes in society are made up of many individuals. “Society doesn’t think; societies around the planet are made up of humans who hold a very wide variety of conscious and unconscious biases about many marginalized identities, gender being one of many.” 

Sherman explained that all of those individual views added up to behavior that reinforces those same ideas individually and also on a policy level.  

“So, you take your pick; working to change ‘hearts and minds’ should, theoretically, and eventually, result in policies that are more fair,” Sherman said. “Or, you start with policy first, and expect that establishing fairness in all elements of a given society will lead to diminishment of bias and prejudice in interpersonal relationships. I think it will take efforts at all levels.” 

By: Hannah Ramsey