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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


Updated: Jul 21, 2019

A woman’s experience in STEM can often be described as ‘death by a thousand cuts.’

What are these cuts? Some are big – pay gap, sexual harassment and even assault – but many are micro. That is, they are microaggressions.

'Microaggressions' is the term used to capture small acts of prejudice, intentional or otherwise, that can have an impact on a person. The University of New Hampshire has a helpful two-pager on understanding microaggressions, aptly titled Making the Invisible Visible. I highly recommend you look at that link, I found it valuable that they broke microaggressions down into three categories: assaults, insults and invalidations.

  1. Microassaults are essentially discrimination, conscious and deliberate insults or behaviours designed to humiliate and shame someone else (racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic behaviour).

  2. Microinsults, are the more subtle comments or behaviours that convey a stereotype or derogatory message about someone, designed to ‘other’ them when they aren’t around.

  3. Microinvalidations are comments and behaviours that send disconfirming messages to an individual and those around them; excluding, negating, or dismissing the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of certain groups

My experience in engineering has been characterised by microaggressions:

  • When I was 19, I was told by my male peers that I got a HD in an engineering course because the lecturer felt sorry for me being a woman.

  • When I was 20, a university lecturer told me to go make him a sandwich in front of a group of my male peers to settle a disagreement.

  • When I was 22, my research supervisor stopped talking to me for two weeks because I didn’t attend a lab social event.

  • When I was 24, I was told I was emotional and aggressive when I disagreed with my research supervisor.

  • When I was 26, a client winked at me whenever he shook my hand.

  • When I was 27, a client asked if a more senior person with more experience could present the work, which I had led and delivered, at an upcoming conference. I had just presented a TED talk at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

I could go on, and on, and on.

With so few women in STEM fields, in high school, university, and in industry, microaggressions have been able to run wild and free, with few people able to articulate their experience, how and why these comments and behaviours are problematic. They are subtle, everyday cues that tell girls and women that they are other, different, and that they don’t belong.

While the gender stereotypes and outdated attitudes that fuel microaggressions exist in every facet of our society, they are amplified in environments where women do not hold a critical mass like engineering, physics, and maths. Understanding microaggressions and what they look and sound like in STEM is an important step towards addressing our attraction and retention issues associated with the inherent gender inequity of our industry and disciplines.

Ongoing microaggressions can impact people’s physical and mental health. It worries me that we have this phrase, ‘death by a thousand cuts’, because it inherently assumes things like microaggressions keep going. It establishes them as the norm for our experience. Imagine, what is that doing to the small group of women who are still in STEM?

When we focus on the extreme examples of bad behaviour when it comes to gender inequity, it can lull us into a false sense of righteousness that neither we, our families, or our teams are part of the problem. Perhaps that is true – but have you thought about how prevalent microaggressions are in your classroom, family, or workplace?


Microaggressions were originally explored when associated with race, and are worse for women of colour, women who have a disability, part of the LGBTIQ community, are early in their career or in their senior years.

Need some more examples? Watch this great explainer video by Quartz, and see another sample list below:

Common phrases

  • “You are being dramatic / emotional, you’re over-reacting”

  • “She’s a bit bossy”

  • “Is it that time of month again?”

  • “Is there someone more senior who can present this work?”

  • “Man up / grow some balls”

  • “Don’t be a girl”

  • “You run / kick like a girl”

Common behaviours:

  • Only asking women to take minutes / the coffee order in a meeting

  • Repeating what women had already said and taking credit for it

  • Constantly interrupting women

  • Assigning the young woman the administrative instead of technical tasks in an engineering group project

  • Looking women up and down as they walk past

PS: this is a huge topic, so there will be a follow up article exploring how we can combat microaggressions! -FM

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