“You should probably consider a major like marketing or management, you’ll feel more at home there than in finance.” 

“Be sure to do the ‘sit down, bend over’ test when choosing to wear a skirt or dress for your professional attire, you don’t want to be too provocative and discredit yourself.”

“You should take notes for our meeting, girls have better handwriting.” 

These are all phrases I’ve heard as a woman getting a business degree and working in a professional context, and I share experiences like these with most (if not all) of my female peers. We have all probably heard the word “micro-aggressions” before, but we don’t often stop to figure out what exactly they are or how impactful they can be on marginalized groups and society as a whole. The tricky thing about microaggressions is that they’re just that — micro.

In my experience, many times I leave a conversation or a situation and may not have noticed a gender-based microaggression that had been said, or sometimes I just feel a little off and can’t figure out why. This form of prejudiced communication can be extremely hard to detect, even for the groups it affects most. Even if it’s blatantly obvious, it’s almost always difficult to communicate the experience or the incident without feeling as though I’m overreacting or being too sensitive (another damaging stereotype placed upon women). As frustrating as these negative stereotypes are, microaggressions are uniquely dangerous because they’re a form of discrimination and oppression disguised as a normal or even friendly gesture.

From a young age, women are taught to blend in and form bonds with those around them by finding common ground. According to Deborah Tannen in “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why”, little girls learn to downplay the ways in which they are better and focus on points of connection and equality among groups. Being too bossy or sounding too sure of oneself is a quick way to lose friends and social acceptance, so women learn to undermine themselves in conversation to appear less threatening. Despite this social conditioning, it’s clear women are not any less intelligent, capable, or confident than their male counterparts when it comes to business, leadership, or anything else. Though different groups of people offer diverse strengths and perspectives which we ought to recognize and value, we need to be careful not to assume what those strengths and perspectives are just by looking at someone’s gender, language, age, or any other superficial attribute that essentially tells us nothing about one’s capacity as a human. I’ve seen time and time again how often men are able to contribute to class discussions, ask questions, and share their ideas in meetings simply because they’re the ones who talk or raise their hands first. In situations when men and women raise their hands simultaneously, it’s not uncommon to have a professor (especially a male one) call on predominantly male students. This doesn’t mean that they’re sexist necessarily, but it does mean they’re a product of our society and unconscious subscribers to the age-old idea that men are more capable and confident than women. More importantly, it means there needs to be a standard for increasing our self-awareness and and doing conscious work to address the biases we all have.

Due to the inherent nature of micro-aggressions themselves (that is, their subtlety and common disguise as casual niceties or off-handed comments), this all might seem a little extreme; but subtle differences in treatment, opportunities, labeling, and recognition are massively impactful, and perpetuate many of the gender and minority issues in our society. It’s not too common to hear someone who is outright sexist and proud of it. It’s extremely common, however, to have perfectly well-intentioned people damage women’s confidence, equality, and how the world sees us. When the biggest focus of your presentation is your outfit and whether or not you are “classy” enough to be taken seriously, you lose opportunities to refine your speaking points and articulation. When time after time you are ignored or left saying, “That’s what I was going to say” or, “That is what I already said” or when you’re consistently cut off or called on after your male classmates, you lose the opportunity to participate equally or be seen as qualified. This, in turn, leads you to be less likely to be recognized by your professor later down the line. When you are always the note-taker in a group project or a meeting, you lose the ability to fully contribute, therefore potentially sacrificing your opportunities for promotions or simply to improve an idea. And when you’re told that you might be more comfortable in another major with more women, not only are we gendering majors and professions that should not be, but we’re limiting people’s dreams and putting their gender above their skills and interests. Comments that can be deemed as benign or even helpful can have long-term negative impacts. The point is not that we need to be paranoid of being offensive all the time, but rather that we must be more considerate, intentional, and willing to correct ourselves when we make mistakes.

Microaggressions may be small, but they’re impactful. They have a lasting effect on how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Many years after I was told to do the “sit down, bend over” test in my business attire, I still get paranoid that my almost knee-length skirt is too short and that I’ll be discredited, judged, or hyper-sexualized even though it’s perfectly professional and the focus should be on me and what I have to offer. I still get concerned about seeming too sure of myself when I contribute more than twice in a class session, and routinely refrain from asking questions or participating in meetings. I’ve had a different experience than the women in finance or accounting who fight an uphill battle for support, access, and validation because I chose more of a “woman’s” major and field of work. However, I constantly feel the need to justify myself because there is some hidden shame in conforming to that stereotype and because we see male-dominated fields as more legitimate and rigorous. These experiences of mine are all products of micro-aggressions and a sexist culture, but they don’t even begin to cover the extent to which this happens, especially to women of color and LGBTQ+ women.

Microaggressions are nothing new, and the fact that we have a word for them indicates progress in our awareness and work towards a more equitable future. We all commit them, and it’s our social responsibility to be aware when we do and consciously and consistently work to be better. If you notice something that feels a little off or unfair, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal or it isn’t directed at you, speak up and be an ally (if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, connect with Women in Business). If someone shares with you that your actions fell into the category of a micro-aggression or discrimination in general, take them seriously, and don’t take it as a personal insult. We’re all a product of an imperfect and unequal society, but it’s our job as individuals to believe one another, take responsibility, and consistently work to improve ourselves and our actions.

Author: McCauley Finnegan