By Poorvi Gupta
“Why are you leaving early today?” or “will you be able to travel to the interiors of India” are all examples of microaggression at the workplace, says Diversity and Inclusion consultant, Shruti Swaroop during her conversation with Ungender. Shruti tackles sexist questions head-on, and this one time countered with, “Would you have asked the same question to the gentleman sitting next to me?”
The term ‘microaggression’ was coined only about 50 years ago by Harvard University professor Chester M Pierce and is, therefore, a relatively new idea. While microaggression is a term given to the inherent biases and stereotypical behaviour that people have to face because they belong to a certain gender, race, community, caste, creed, nationality, hampering their dignity, today we are tackling gendered microaggression.
Contrary to popular perception and the age of the term – gendered microaggression is very common in our society and is one of the many ways that harassment manifests itself in the workplace.
It becomes important to recognise gendered microaggression at the workplace because a hostile workplace is not just against the law but also because microaggression can be detrimental to women’s participation in the workforce. India slipped in its rankings on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, this year, to a rank of 112 from 108 – a fall of five places, putting us behind countries like China (106th), Sri Lanka (102nd), Nepal (101st), Brazil (92nd), Indonesia (85th) and Bangladesh (50th).
While it would be an exaggeration to blame microaggression alone for it, we all know how difficult it is work or live with passive aggression of any kind.
Given this, it is worthwhile to try and address the root cause of microaggression. “At the base of it all, are the power equations dictated by patriarchal mindsets. Patriarchy is a social and ideological construct, which allows specific roles to men and women with the underlying theory that men are superior to women,” said Dr Saundarya Rajesh, founder of Avtar, which provides both strategy and implementation solutions in Diversity & Inclusion.
“When you dissect it, it is nothing more than power play to fit men and women into stereotypes. It is not cultural, and it certainly is not natural,” said Dr Saundarya Rajesh.
Smiti Deorah, Co-Founder and COO at Advantage Club, shared some more examples of microaggression. She noted, “From a microaggressive behaviour standpoint, people don’t really realise, and it is primarily unintentional. Most common responses are that it was a joke, or it was not supposed to not be taken seriously.”
She went on to add, “While asking women if they are married or single during a job interview is a very common example, there are also other ways it manifests, For example, if employees are going out for a team meeting and a male employee refuses to carpool with a woman because they think women are bad drivers. In fact, women also carry biases against other women, for example, women in leadership can also be victims of the mindset that the productivity of a woman may be less than a man because there might be distributed priorities while recruiting.”
On how gendered microaggression makes women or members of the LGBTQIA community, for example, feel and how it impacts their work, Swaroop believes that it primarily leads to self-doubt.
“The greater number of times a person is looked down upon, the worse it impacts their mental well-being. These are such deep-rooted biases that they don’t just manifest at the workplace but in life. Organisations are also the representation of the society we live in. When you are being characterised by your gender and being taunted for belonging to a certain gender, how is that workplace going to be non-toxic and non-exhausting for anyone?”
Dr Rajesh adds that the change is indeed happening, at least in corporate setups. “In the last decade when conversations on Diversity & Inclusion became mainstream and an important part of business discussions, initiatives driving inclusion have had several different avatars.
“At the core are initiatives to looking to create gender consciousness as part of the organisational culture – from training interventions to fostering a culture of male allies; to diversity appreciation sessions to training programmes on POSH; these interventions span a wide spectrum. Deepening on an organisation’s commitment to create an inclusive culture, we see these organizations offering generous paid paternity leave, and in some cases gender-equal and neutral parental leave,” said Dr Rajesh.
Menstrual products company, Sirona’s founder, Deep Bajaj, also shares how he keeps microaggression at bay in the workplace in his company. “The company has a special place for the female members of the Sirona family. It is called Sirona Sisterhood. We have reserved an hour-long slot for them to enjoy some quality sister time at the office every Wednesday evening. This is their time when they can chill, share stories, have fun and bond with each other. Of course, no men are allowed, but the entire office lights up with their laughter around this time every Wednesday (these meetings take place in the conference room).
“We have an all-women Facebook community as well with the same name- Sirona Sisterhood. This is a space for women to connect with each other and discuss issues without any filters. This group is open to other women too,” he said.
Experiences of companies such as Sirona contain valuable lessons for the rest of us – working in a space so personal to women that it almost still continues to be a taboo, men likely find it hard to completely understand the issues women face and then create products around it.
We asked Bajaj how being an observer and listener in this industry feels, in his own words “Having closely observed my wife suffer due to inadequate infrastructure to cater to women’s intimate hygiene needs, I feel strongly for the issues Sirona aims to resolve. Yet, operating in this domain, I often find myself in spots where I feel if only I were a woman, I would have understood things much better. Here, our female members come to the rescue, taking over important roles in product development, need analysis and so much more! We hold extensive discussions, numerous internal reviews before product launches and our women are the ones to guide the rest of the team.”
It seems like placing women at the center of a workplace is both productive and helps keep a microaggression-free workplace for all.
While Bajaj’s policies, particularly of collectivising women, is a good idea for other companies to follow, Dr Rajesh has additional suggestions which can help reduce instances of microaggressive behaviour at the workplace.
While responding to micro-aggressive behaviour, one principle to remember is that the aggressor should not feel that he or she is under attack for their comment. If we want people to hear what we are saying and potentially change their behaviour, we must think about things that will not immediately make them defensive.
Learning to draw boundaries and finding support among allies are important steps in dealing with microaggression. While responding to microaggression, using the three tactics below can help in confronting or responding to the individual who has been using microaggression as a strategy to put down female colleagues:
Ask for clarifications: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” OR “How have you come to think that about me?”
Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t realise this, but when you said/did this (comment/behaviour), it was hurtful/offensive. Instead, you could have said/done this (different language or behaviour.)“
Share how you manage your own behaviour in a similar situation: “I noticed that you said/did (comment/behaviour). I used to do/say that too, but then I learned that people get hurt.“
About the author: Poorvi Gupta is a freelance journalist working in the gender space. She is mostly optimistic about the progress women are making in male-dominated spaces and feels passionate about women speaking up at the workplace or in public spaces battling intersectional odds.
This article was first published here.
Note: Ungender Insights is the product of our learning from advisory work at Ungender. Our team specializes in advising workplaces on workplace diversity and inclusion. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to understand how we can partner with your organization to build a more inclusive workplace.