Workplace microaggressions – are they real?

Workplace microaggressions - are they real?

Imagine yourself as a woman working in IT. You have all the skills and education necessary to be in that position. You enjoy your work as much as the next person. Yet, somehow you’re always asked, “It’s not too tough working with the IT guys?” 

Despite the speaker’s good intentions, this comment irks you. You do not feel right being asked this question. Why? Because here, the  assumption is that you are not as competent as your male colleagues, no matter the qualifications or the skills you possess. This is an example of a range of behaviours known as microaggressions. 

What are they? Why are they significant? Let us explore this. 

Microaggressions – What Are They?

Psychologist Derald W. Sue, who has  written two books on the subject, defines microaggressions as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Sue et. al have described three common forms of microaggressions, which are;

  1. Micro-assaults – A micro-assault is a type of overt discrimination or criticism that is done intentionally to discredit a marginalized group. For example, waving a confederate flag, refusing service to someone who is gay.
  2.  Micro-insults – Usually non-intentional verbal communication wherein it is subtly implied that a particular demographic is not respected, but the target of the insult is an ‘exception’ to that stereotype. Telling a person of colour that they are surprisingly good in English communication is a micro-insult.
  3.  Micro-invalidation – A comment or action that dismisses the experiences of historically disadvantaged group members. Saying one doesn’t ‘see colour’ is a form of micro-invalidation, as the target very much sees that as part of their personhood, and denying that is akin to denying their racial identity.

Can We Equate Microaggressions To Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Etc.?

The key aspect of microaggressions is that the people who engage in them are not overtly racist/sexist/homophobic. In fact, they perceive themselves to be equal and unprejudiced.

It’s the implicit bias that they may have against a particular group that manifests as some form of microaggression. The stereotypes, beliefs and assumptions that we are not even aware of are what we refer to as implicit biases.

It is because of such bias that women mostly find themselves being asked to get coffee for their colleagues in the middle of a meeting. This behaviour is a direct result of the inherent belief that women are suited for such service oriented roles instead of technical positions.

So, although microaggressions are not overt cases of discrimination, they are based on the same ideas of prejudice and bias.

Are Microaggressions  Real, Or Just People Being Overly Sensitive?

At the end of the day, microaggressions are subtle forms of behaviour that mostly go unnoticed. But, it’s the aggressor’s individual privilege that enables them to engage in that behaviour without much cognitive pressure.

The same cannot be said of the target. Starting from a simple case of microaggression, (like when a female gets called ‘dear’ every time she speaks up at work), the transgressions keep piling up and they can cause immense amounts of stress.

The fact that microaggressions are so subtle that the target feels uncertain about their position in a group. Especially in a work setting, this can contribute to decreased levels of job satisfaction, mental distress, loss of motivation, intrusive thoughts and a subsequent lack of sleep, and even feelings of helplessness and depression.

This is especially true in the light of the Women in the Workplace study conducted by Mckinsey & Company. It has been observed that women of colour face a wider range of microaggressions, which are more frequent and reflect a wider range of biases.

The study cites that “Black women are almost four times as likely as White women; and Latinas and Asian women are two to three times as likely, to hear people express surprise at their language skills or other abilities, and we see a similar pattern for other common microaggressions, as well.

Women, especially women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities always find themselves being subjected to microaggressive behaviours. Their decision making skills  are constantly judged; they find themselves being interrupted or spoken over by others; and their ‘emotional state’ takes more precedence than the work they’re doing. The reduced job satisfaction that women feel when compared to men is a direct consequence of these experiences. 

As many as 39% of the respondents in another study organised by McKinsey & Company have reported hearing jokes about ‘people like you.’  What might be humour to one person may be the cause of self-doubts and self-directed anger for someone else. As these feelings keep piling up, the target of such assaults starts to feel a sense of othering which eventually leads to them distancing themselves from their work, academics, etc.


Microaggressions in the workplace not only affect the victim’s well-being, but can also impact their productivity and job satisfaction. They also tend to undermine employees’ safety. This is probably why despite being aware of the microaggressions they are subjected to, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community rarely express their concerns within the workplace. The deteriorating effects of such behaviour, thus,  can eventually lead to absenteeism, and thereby impact the overall performance of the organisation.

The McKinsey & Company reports of 2020 revealed that Black women had to face more biases in their workplace, particularly microaggressions. Their judgement is  often questioned and they also have to deal with demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them. 

This form of pressure is exactly why we need to take microaggressions more seriously.

Hence, it’s safe to say that microaggressions are very much real and their effects are equally significant. To move towards a more inclusive work culture, it’s imperative that we recognize this and take action to improve ourselves, one step at a time.

How can we tackle such behaviour ? 

Considering that microaggressions are difficult to ascertain unless the victim personally shares their experiences, it becomes imperative that we take necessary action to:

  1. Identify and acknowledge such forms of behaviour, and
  2. Take immediate action to correct the same

As microaggressions are mostly manifestations of our implicit biases, the best way to combat them is to begin by having discussions with people who are different from us. Getting to know their perspectives can go a long way in keeping our own behaviour at check. Being vigilant of our actions, therefore, is the first step. 

However, with workspaces transitioning into remote modes, being able to assess our behaviour is now a challenge. Without the social cues of a physical workspace, and the inability to have informal discussions with one’s colleagues, may make us increasingly oblivious to our misdoings. 

Even that can be combated thanks to tech. AI products like Dost, etc., that can be integrated with online workspaces, flag content that could be hurtful. These products are oriented in such a way that the microaggression is identified and communicated to the aggressor rather than the target, thus gradually enabling people to assess and rethink their own implicit biases. 

Further, by suggesting alternatives for a given sentence, these AI bots can also help in keeping the communication flow smooth and consistent, and also most importantly, clean.

Hence, it’s only a matter of choice – a choice as to whether we’re ready to promote inclusion, one word at a time.

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