Microaggressions in the Workplace


This is an excerpt taken from an article written by Vanessa Raponi on behalf of the Ontario Society of Engineers (OSPE) Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Task Force.   Visit www.diversifySTEM.ca to access free micro-lessons on promoting gender diversity and changing workplace culture.

Microaggressions: The uncomfortable sensation women and other equity-seeking groups experience all too often.

“Your name is really hard to pronounce; can I just call you Jay?”

“Wow Miss, you’re the manager? I just assumed you were the receptionist!”

“Where are you from?” … “No, I mean where are you really from?”

“When an engineer does something, he should remember…”

A microaggression is an action or verbal message that intentionally – or more often – unintentionally conveys a stereotype, negative trait, or general insensitivity associated with someone’s race, gender, identity, sexual orientation, language abilities or other identity markers. It is a subtle jab that reminds someone that they are the “other” in some way. The more often microaggressions are heard, the bigger the impact they will have on a person’s well-being.

For members of underrepresented groups, microaggressions can be a daily experience, forcing them to question whether they belong and creating anxiety about how others perceive them.

Members of OSPE’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee shared some of their experiences:

“After years of shock when I mentioned I was in school for engineering, I felt like I had to wear my iron ring to prove myself. As a young Black woman, I did not fit the model of what people expected of an engineer. These microaggressions can lead to people making changes in their lifestyle to fit in like changing their attire, hobbies, habits and more.”

“You’re in engineering? But, you’re a girl!”

“Are you sure you want to take on this additional volunteer commitment? Your husband might divorce you and your kids might not recognize you because you won’t be home very much.”

Although not unique to engineering workplaces, acknowledging and addressing these behaviours is a step in the right direction to achieving a more diverse engineering profession. What should you do to avoid committing a microaggression?

 Tips to avoid committing microaggressions:

1.     Challenge your assumptions – the essence of microaggressions stems from poorly held assumptions. That is, assuming someone falls into your definition of “normal” or assuming that you know anything about a person’s identity without giving them an opportunity to tell you.

2.     Be conscious of personal comments in a workplace environment – remember that work is already challenging and adding layers of discomfort will inevitably drive people away. When making office small talk with people you don’t know very well, be extra conscious of broaching personal subject matters. When in doubt, lead with a story to take the pressure off the other person. If they’re comfortable with you, they’ll share one in return.

3.     Reflect on what you may have already said and change your behaviour – if any of this sounds like something you’ve done in the past, it’s not too late to change. You can be conscious of your language and actions moving forward, and you can even reach out to someone to apologize for what you’ve done or said in the past. Just be sure not to make a big deal out of your apology – it’s more important that the other person feels comfortable than you are feeling gratitude for acknowledging your mistakes.

Foster understanding and knowledge sharing using technology

To foster diverse and inclusive workplaces, it is imperative that employers take concentrated efforts to open up the dialogue within their organizations about what is going well and what needs to be improved. These conversations can be uncomfortable, and many leaders may feel out of their depth when trying to educate their employees on topics such as microaggressions or unconscious bias. However, it is important to remember that there are many tools and resources available that facilitate this process.

One of these is DiversifySTEM, a microlearning app and website that delivers bite-sized, actionable lessons to promote gender diversity and changing the culture in STEM workplace. This app provides employers with actionable strategies that can be learned in five-minute increments to help break barriers for underrepresented groups in the workplace. This is a great starting point for employers to become more aware of issues and to empower employees with tips that can get them started on making changes today.

The STEM sector caters to the entirety of society, and our workplace diversity should adequately reflect the communities we are serving. The more comfortable we can make one another feel, the more likely we’ll be able to work together to solve problems, which is the one thing all STEM professionals – no matter their background – will always have in common.

Visit www.diversifySTEM.ca and learn more, or download the app from the App Store or from Google Play 

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