Let Me Tell You… About Microaggressions

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” – Gloria Steinem 

Here’s the situation…You are a woman in a conference room with mostly male coworkers. An idea strikes and you offer up that idea to the group. No one responds. Instead, they start talking again until a man offers up the very same idea. The crowd cheers!  

Okay, they don’t cheer, but they listen and give full credit to your male coworker. This act of ignoring a female in the room is a microaggression – a subtle but offensive act or comment that is directed at a member of a marginalized group.  

Women live these aggressions every day, so let’s take a closer look at what some of them are. 

Touching the small of a woman’s back:  

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson 

It might seem to many men to be a caring or even careful move to shelter or protect another person. However, it is actually the act of touching another person’s body without asking and without permission.  

The same thing goes for touching a woman’s face unasked.  

Or their pregnant belly.  

Try to think of things like this from the perspective of the person being touched. Do you want strangers putting their hands all over your body without asking? 

So gentlemen, what should you do if you’re in a crowded space and passing behind a woman? Excuse yourself as you pass behind, and ask before your hands make contact with another person. 

Insisting a woman defend her qualifications:  

“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” – Lois Wyse 

Every woman in a professional setting has had that moment when she was grilled about whether or not she belonged at the “big boys table.” Whether it’s answering a barrage of questions directly related to her educational background or being smirked at for trying to step into the shoes of a male counterpart or being asked point blank if she is the new “diversity hire,” women are constantly having to reaffirm their right to be at work. 

So gentlemen, what should you do if the new employee is female? The same thing you would do if that employee was male. Treat people with the respect you would hope to receive and make a professional environment more professional. 

And ladies, if it gets to be too much, talk to someone in Human Resources. They’re trained to handle this situation. 

Using pet names:  

“I am a feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” – Maya Angelou 

Alice has been working for Mr. Hamilton for three weeks now. Every time he leaves his office, he pats her desk twice and says, “Be right back, honey.” He calls Jane at the Reception Desk “Darling” when he exits the building.  

Jane tells Alice not to worry. “He’s harmless.” 

So gentlemen, think before you use terms of endearment to people you are not endeared by. You wouldn’t like it if your female manager started calling you “sport,” “buddy” or “sweetheart.”  

And ladies, the only response that might change this behavior is to meet the perpetrator’s eyes in a focused stare every time it happens. You might add an “Excuse me?” 

The glib remark: 

“When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinions, she’s a bitch.” – Bette Davis 

“Lower your voice. That’s not very feminine. 

“Don’t be too aggressive in this meeting. You don’t want to come off as a bitch.”  

You need to be nicer. Your co-workers won’t like you.”  

“You should smile more.” 

Being treated like a child is never fun for an adult. Being called names for behavior that is not only accepted but encouraged in men is downright insulting. Being threatened with the censorious concept of dislike from your fellows is something women regularly face.  

Let’s face it, ladies – women are often faced with the conundrum of being strong or being likable. The only solution to this is for women to begin to stand up and say that it is not okay. Some ideas on what to say are: 

“What do you mean by that?” 

“Let’s not go there.” 

Or simply: “Did you really just say that?” 

And gentlemen, think before you say something like this.  

Traditional Gender roles: 

When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition. – Letty Cottin Pogrebin 

Many mothers in heterosexual relationships, when out with friends who don’t have children, are asked the same question: “Is your husband/partner babysitting the kids tonight?”  

Expectant mothers face a similar question: “Will you be staying at home once the baby is born?” 

Generally speaking, it takes two people to make a baby. If a woman is in a heterosexual relationship, it doesn’t mean that she will take on the majority of the child care responsibilities.  

So ladies, what is there to say here? A personal favorite answer to the first question is: “No, he’s home parenting the children.” 

An answer to the second: “Why would you assume I would do that?” 

And gentlemen, when you say these types of things, you reflect your own parenting skills. Men can be wonderful parents, and by negating that you are insulting them.  

By the way, there are stay-at-home and/or single fathers. They are often referred to as “Mr. Mom” – the title of a 1983 movie in which Michael Keaton plays a father learning to stay at home. In case you were wondering, most men these days who choose to focus on their children prefer to be called Dad. 

He / She / They 

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron 

When a transgender or gender nonbinary person is misgendered, it is a reminder that they are, according to those who have made the rules for so very long, not “normal.” 

The definition of normal has changed in the last few decades, and everyone needs to catch up already.  

Yes! There are people in the world who were born “looking male” who are really female. There are those we’ve labeled “female” who are really male. And, the newest twist but one that we all need to remember, there are people in the world who are neither male nor female. 

The solution to this is simple. If you don’t know, ask. 

“What are your pronouns?” 

If you do know, try to always use those pronouns.  

And if you slip up and use the wrong one, apologize and do better in the future. 

In Other Words 

“Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” – Nelson Mandela 

A good rule of thumb for anyone trying to avoid microaggressive behavior is to think before they speak. Ask if this is something you would want another person to do or say to your daughter, wife, or mother.  

By Sally K Lehman