Why women remain silent about microaggression at the workplace

No matter if it happens to you, someone next to you or someone further away, it is important to question it - speak up - take action

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The first time I felt a microaggression was at the first year of my study. It was just after I have presented results of our group’s assignment in front of more than 350 future Civil Engineers.

“You should better stop with presenting and speaking in public, because no one is interested in what I have to say” – anonymous e-mail I received at University

I received an anonymous e-mail saying that I should better stop with presenting and speaking in public, because no one is interested in what I have to say. After a 5min (at that time not that common) Google search, I found out that it was sent by one of the guys attending the same class as me. Although I had a good laugh about it with my best friend and responded to him that I am not interested in his opinion, it did make me think why it happened to me.

15 years later, I realise that these situations happen every day. Women all around the World are being interrupted, shut down, explained and lectured on topics of their expertise, both by men and women. They are more blamed for failures and given less credits for their successes. In most of the cases, this happens because of unconscious gender bias which all people have. Our brains take “shortcuts” to organise the world around us and to respond quickly and we call these shortcuts “bias”. We already have a picture in our brain before we really think about it.

“If you have a brain, you have bias.”

Why it happens?


For example, performance gender bias makes us think that contributions by women are less valuable than contributions by men. This is why both men and women interrupt women three times more often than men when they speak or present their ideas. In my opinion, such a backlash is a sort of microaggression. Most of these women remain silent if this happens to them, as I was. I have not shared this with the public. Not this or any other time when I was called “too loud”, “too ambitious” or “bossy”.

Why women stay silent?

Women stay silent about microaggression that happens to them because of likability bias. Practice shows that we expect from women to be at the same time assertive and nice, while from men it is enough if they are assertive. Women who are too assertive, may be labeled as aggressive. On the other hand, women who are too nice, might be labelled as not enough professional. This is why women have to constantly balance between being assertive and nice. They have to be likeable in order to progress at the workplace. This is also why women often choose not to talk about microaggression they suffer from at work. Because of fear that they will be seen as not nice. On a long term, they might feel that their contributions are less valuable and eventually stop sharing their opinions or even leave the company.

Why is it important?

Research shows that people that feel heard in their organisations and believe that their contributions are valuable for the company, have more self-confidence, experience more positive emotions, are more optimistic about the future and are better able to deal with setbacks. This is why it is important to tackle unconscious gender bias and speak about microaggression at workplace.

It is not easy to tackle microaggression at workplace and it takes a lot of effort to change the company culture where microaggression takes place because of unconscious gender bias. But no matter if it happens to you, someone next to you or someone further away, question it, speak up and take action. Because the unconscious gender bias is often hidden and subtle, so are the microaggression events. If you think that you are experiencing a recurrent pattern of people interrupting you while speaking or being explained on the topic of your expertise, ask for few male and female colleagues to pay attention if it happens to them as well. Speak about what are the consequences of such behaviour at workplace on a long term and take action to rise awareness about unconscious gender bias.


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