As women, we encounter questions and assumptions about us every day that can feel invasive and inappropriate to the situation. Especially in business, it feels like we have to fight harder and be better to get the same respect a man in a similar situation would get. In discussions with other women, friends, family, and work colleagues, I’ve found we have all experienced some type of sexism at work. Sometimes it happens in big ways, and sometimes microaggressions are so small, it’s hard to tell if the problem is us or outside influences.

What are Microaggressions?

A microaggression is a statement, action, or incident of unintentional or subtle discrimination against a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions are directed at minorities too. When they are directed at minorities, they are racist in context. Many types of marginalized groups experience microaggressions (i.e. minorities, people with disabilities, different sexual orientations, those who are gender nonconforming). Today I will focus specifically on sexist microaggressions.

Microaggressions are sometimes hard to pinpoint because they aren’t always intentional. However, the aggression comes from preconceived notions of the marginalized person’s group.  They can be hard to deal with on an individual level because the sexism is so slight, a woman might internalize the aggression and blame herself instead of properly recognizing it as sexist.

Because microaggressions aren’t talked about or even recognized all the time, and dismissed a lot when they are, it’s a silencing technique to ensure the marginalized group blames herself for the problem instead of patriarchal standards that persist.

It’s important to talk about microaggressions you’ve experienced with each other so you…

  1. don’t feel alone, and
  2. know how to identify if it happens to you.

Sexism permeates many places in culture, and oftentimes, the way it plays out is not intentional by the perpetrator. The sexist and demeaning assumptions they might have are perpetuated by society and the media.

The first thing to remember when someone makes a sexist comment, even a small one: it’s not you, it’s them.

If you are uncomfortable by a sexist comment, you have every right to be upset and speak up about it.

Speak Up Against Microaggressions to Take Back Power

Repeat this with me: Power is not good or bad, it’s neutral. You have every right to power (listen to my podcast with Anna Eskamani to hear more about this).

Recently, I found myself in a situation where I had to speak up against a microaggression. I was meeting with a new contact about the possibility of us working together to bring business in. During the meeting, he asked me a few questions that made me feel like he was questioning how dedicated to my business I was. His basis for this analysis was based on questions he asked me about my marital status and if I was a mother.

He wanted to know if I was flexible with my schedule, but did not ask me about my flexibility.

I became increasingly uncomfortable with the line of questioning, but it was casual enough that I was going to let it go. However, we got to the end of the meeting where we laid out the expectation of what we wanted from each other, and he told me to talk it over with my husband and get back to him.

As a visceral reaction to the question, I winced. He noticed and asked what was wrong.

“I don’t need to discuss my business decisions with my husband. This is my business, and I make my own decisions.” I nicely, but firmly, told him.

It threw him off for a moment, but he regained his composure and said he didn’t mean anything by it. He just thought it was the appropriate thing to say, and it wasn’t a big deal. All of a sudden I felt bad for making him uncomfortable.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

Was I being too sensitive?

No. That question was inappropriate. When I spoke up (while unintended since my face gave me away), I gained some power and respect back in the relationship even if I did make him uncomfortable in the moment.

But here’s the important part of why this was a microaggression, even if on the surface it looked like a regular, casual business conversation: he would have never told me to talk things over with my wife if I were a man in the exact same situation. 

I’m glad I spoke up. If I was a man, he wouldn’t ask me to consult about a business referral with my wife or how children might hamper my flexibility. As a man, business associates wouldn’t judge my qualifications based on my marriage and motherhood status.

All of those assumptions I dealt with in that one conversation, women deal with every day in the workplace. I know women who have been casually asked out, judged without context on the appropriateness of their clothing in the workplace, told they speak too much in meetings (when it statistically probably isn’t true), or are too aggressive in how they speak or act. Sexist microaggressions play out in many different ways in the workplace.

Fight Against Microaggressions

These questions, even when the asker thinks it’s no big deal, devalues our work. If your work is devalued because you’re a woman, a few things you can do are:

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Be polite but firm about your position.
  3. Make it about the microaggression and not about the person.
  4. Find other women or allies to talk to about the microaggressions.
  5. Find coping strategies so you don’t internalize the microaggression.

As women in business, it’s important that we recognize sexism, both big and small instances, and work towards eliminating it. Otherwise, others will use it as a reason to devalue us. Plus, if we let it get to us, we might use it as a way to devalue ourselves.

Have you experienced sexist microaggressions in the workplace? What was it about and how did you handle it? Share your story below so others don’t feel so alone.