How to manage microaggressions in the workplace and improve inclusion

March 12, 2018
Ana Sofia Barrows
Departmental Assistant
Office of the Dean, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University

Microaggressions are subtle derogatory messages that are communicated to an individual or group of individuals. In many occasions, they come from stereotyping based on the physical characteristics of an individual or group of individuals. Unfortunately, microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes. They exist in media, workplaces, academia, classrooms, social gatherings, and pretty much everywhere, and the most significant problem with these is that they are unintentional, sometimes even “funny,” and are often directed at women. In many situations, the aggressor or aggressors are surrounded by like-minded people, who allow for these type of behaviours to be accepted.

Be aware of microaggressions in the workplace

As a woman and an immigrant, I have often heard negative comments about by Mexican background and my gender. In many situations, they have been presented as jokes or subtle comments, and have come from friends, classmates, co-workers, and acquaintances. I started to experience these since I moved to Canada, and I thought that it was normal for people to behave that way and that having to put up with these sort of comments was just part of being an immigrant. As I started my Medical Physics degree, I started to experience a lot of stereotyping based on my gender. A few years ago, I received a message on social media from a person I have never met before asking if I was “really a physicist,” and saying that based on my profile, “I did not look like one.” It was surprising to me that a complete stranger would go out of his way to express how I did not fit the stereotype of what a physicist is supposed to look like. Was I too womanly? Was I too Mexican? Did I not look smart enough? At that moment I decided not to engage with that individual, but I noticed I started to negatively internalize his comments.

I have had many similar situations, but last spring I experienced a situation that made me significantly more uncomfortable and encouraged me to voice my concerns about these type of microaggressions. I was asked to help a member of my workplace to carry some things to another building. When I agreed to do so, this person responded by joking that I would be their “Mexican mule”. I laughed nervously, even though I was furious. Perhaps the fact that this person was in a more senior position than mine made them feel comfortable to make a comment like that. However, this comment made me feel very embarrassed, powerless, and mad. This situation happened in front of three other people, and I am disappointed to say that one of the person’s reaction was to respond, as he laughed: “are you going to let her call you that?”. I was speechless. I was finishing my undergraduate degree when this happened, and all I wanted at that time was to work as hard as I could to be able to get a decent job after graduation, so I did not complain as I felt that would harm my career.

This takes me to the next step.

Do not feed microaggressions

My new year’s resolution has been to not feed microaggressions and it has been hard to keep. Microaggressions come from everyone, and frequently. I have personally found that the hardest types to eliminate are the microinsults that come in the form of jokes which (commonly) target language abilities, such as making fun of mispronunciations, as well as physical abilities, gender, age, and race.

To eradicate microaggressions in the workplace, we have to be aware of them and start calling them out. We need to start to recognize them and understand the harm they cause, such as the reduced performance of the individuals affected, decreased engagement and communication between employees and management, and a poorer image of the work environment as a whole.

We should raise our voices when microaggressions occur, especially when they are aimed at someone else, and more importantly if we are in more senior positions than the people being attacked. We need to make it clear that these type of behaviours are not acceptable in the workforce. It is also imperative for workplaces to establish no tolerance policies/statements against stereotyping and microaggressions.

Although microaggressions are often directed at women, this is not a women’s problem, this is a people’s problem. March 8th was International Women’s Day, however the great strides and reflection should not stop on this day. Combating microaggressions needs to be a continuous battle. Even though we may falter from time to time, we need to step forward, take action, and hold people accountable to foster a more inclusive scientific community. An inclusive scientific community will drive diversity of ideas and enhance innovation.