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  • Dr Francesca Maclean

RESPONDING TO MICROAGGRESSIONS

After publishing an introductory article on microaggressions, women with 20+ years’ work experience shared that it was the first time that they had words to explain their experience of being in STEM. I wasn’t surprised.


As I have previously mentioned, using ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to explain women’s experience in STEM can be dangerous if it is normalised. For years, girls and women have been conditioned to expect certain types of treatment in STEM environments. Of course these women didn’t know these things were called microaggressions, because for decades it has just been the norm.


This changing tide – women’s growing and well-informed vocabulary and articulation of our experiences – excites me. The more we can name what is the issue, the less people will try to fix us, and the more they can fix the system.


Though in the meantime, we still have to deal with the daily microaggressions. Now we know what they look and sound like, we can start to respond so we can invalidate the microinvalidations that are pushed on us.


Here are some basic steps to shut down microaggressions, and some valuable resources to help along the way. I highly recommend checking out this Tool for Interrupting Microaggressions from UC Santa Cruz.


If you are the recipient of microaggressions, first make sure you are in a physically / emotionally / psychologically safe position to say something. If you’re not, that’s ok, you can tackle it another day. Otherwise, think about doing the following:

  • Address the issue directly, with humour or facts – whatever works for you and the situation (next three points):

  • If someone is interrupting you, you could use some humour and say: “I know you’re excited to share your idea, however I haven’t finished my point yet.”

  • If someone is inferring you are not able to do the job because of your age, you could respond with: “I know there are stereotypes about what people my age can do, however I have experience in XYZ..."

  • Explain the impact of the microaggression: “When you say XYZ it feels like I am being undermined in front of the team”

  • If you don’t feel like you can address it directly in the moment, or have done so and seen no change, approach the person’s manager or team leader to explain the situation

  • Sometimes, a situation just needs a “That isn’t appropriate / not the issue here.”

If you witness microaggressions in action:

  • Call the bias out and probe to understand more: “What makes you believe that / ask that?”

  • Pull the microaggressor aside and explain your observations, the impact, and discuss how they can change their behaviour. “I’ve noticed that you interrupt the women in our team more than the men. Why do you think that is? Next meeting you’re in, wait until someone has finished speaking to say something.”

  • Again, “That isn’t appropriate / not the issue here.” is always gold.

If you have the ability to make cultural / systemic change (i.e. managers / leaders):

  • Establish appropriate cultural norms that counteract microaggressions, such as a ‘no interruptions’

  • Teach your staff / team about microaggressions. Have an honest conversation about what happens in your environment, whether good or bad, and what everyone can do to address any issues

  • Call yourself out when you are the perpetrator of microaggressions, demonstrating the ‘unlearning’ process is valuable for others to see

  • Show up to diversity and inclusion events in your organisation / workplace and listen to the stories you are told. They might be different from your assumptions, but that’s why you showed up to the event in the first place, to learn.

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Recommended resources:


Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett

Fighting Back: Implicit Bias, Micro-aggressions, and Micro-resistance – The Ohio State University

Tool for Interrupting Microaggressions – from UC Santa Cruz

Did you really just say that? – American Psychological Association

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