Women in the workplace: Dealing with micro-aggression and micro-invalidation

Recently, a friend pointed me to an appalling book by Varun Mannava. It was titled Polite Pickup Lines in Indian Pubs. On visiting the Amazon page, it was unsurprising to see men giving it great reviews and find one women shocked.

The book had some ‘gems’: "If you see a woman with a funky hairdo or a nose ring, just walk up to them and say ‘nice hairdo. Can I take a selfie with you please?’ Saying this, click a selfie immediately. Don’t give them time to think. This is called a brain freeze.”

It doesn’t stop there. He writes, “In a scenario where this may backfire, just comply with what the woman is saying and move on to the next woman worth taking a selfie with.”

I want to take a block of ice from said brain freeze and whack the author. This is the kind of tripe entitled, sexist men are dishing out to other men who lap it up. Taking advantage of women’s freeze symptoms — triggered when they are under stress — is aggressive and untoward. This book is a call to bad behaviour and taking advantage of women when accosted with uncomfortable situations. Not with real consent.

But that bad behaviour is visibly palpable and overt. What of subtle comments and behaviour?

Have you ever been told to smile?

Have you heard statements along the lines of –

“You have such a serious face all the time.”

“Why are you so khaddoos?”

“Your hairstyle makes you look severe.”

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Why do we have an expectation for women to look pleasant and smiley all the time? It’s because people want to be able to put women in a box labelled ‘sugar and spice and all that’s nice,’ and to tell you the truth — we just don’t feel that way. Especially at work.

We don’t feel that way, because besides the outwardly aggressive and hostile behaviour, women also face subtle aggression — what we largely understand as passive-aggressive behaviour.

The term 'racial microaggressions' was proposed by American psychologist Chester Pierce in the 1970s; subsequently Mary Rowe widened the scope to include similar aggressions towards women.

They are oft, yet subtle — and we do not know why we get uncomfortable, angry or upset. The conditioning is to accept it.

At a conference, I asked women if male colleagues behaved in ways that undermine women. Instances of what that would look like include not making eye contact with women when speaking to them, constantly interrupting, (what we call 'Manterrupting', a phenomenon now so recognised and common that we have an app to detect how many times one gets 'manterrupted'), patronising women, or using pathological communication styles.

Every woman said yes.

I’ve always wondered why men in senior positions cannot talk to women. At a conference, I was relating an anecdote where ShopClues’ Radhika Agarwal and her male colleague had met a male venture capitalist. Despite the fact that Radhika knew the business and finances and her colleague did not, the VC kept questioning the man and ignored Radhika even as she answered.

As I finished my story, a man from the audience said, “Maybe the man was a better presenter.” I said the man didn’t present, he didn’t even have the answers — Radhika did. The man argued with me and another male member in the audience piped up, “Maybe he is not comfortable talking to women.” Relieved to have someone state what he was feeling, the man said, “Yes exactly, yes.”

To which I turned to them both and stated that women are 50 percent of the population. You will see us everywhere, everyday. I told them if they didn’t know how to interact with women with respect and normality, it was time for them examine their own discriminations. And their learnings.

These behaviours are called microagression and this how it plays out:

From the book Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do. HarperCollins 2016

From the book Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do. HarperCollins 2016

I tweeted asking women to send me sentences where people were “passive aggressive” with them. The most common ones were along these lines:

“I left on time and the man said, 'Oh, half-day?'"

Along this popular thread was an indignant woman who said, “I went to work a couple of hours late (after taking permission) and my colleague said, 'Oh half day?' That same colleague walked in close to lunch one day and I was tempted to ask, 'Mummy not home to make you breakfast on time?'”

Microaggressions are everywhere.

Other jibes included:

“You don’t need more money, you have a husband who works.”

“Let’s talk about quotas for women…” (not a discussion, a statement)

"Don’t get so emotional, take things in your stride.”

“Chill ya, relax. Can’t you take a joke?”


From the book Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do. HarperCollins 2016

Some reported microinvalidations from women colleagues — mostly from married women to single women, which seemed common.

“You don’t have a family, so why do you need to go home on time?”

“You have no responsibilities, that’s why you got the promotion.”

“Why do you need a promotion and more money? You do not have a family to support.”

When we have conversations with colleagues, our larger bad behaviours are mostly pointed or reported. No one looks at the more everyday, subtle bad behaviours — which are constant.

Is it a wonder women I know (including me) have a permanent ‘resting bitch face’? A term originally referred to as 'resting face' with 'bitchy' added to it after an insightful video on bias was made by the comedy group Broken People.

I almost always have this face on because microaggressions are everywhere, every hour, all the time. Frankly I like my RBF. It keeps men clear of telling me how to behave.

If anyone should do the behaving, it is people who surround us with everyday aggressions. Training for inclusiveness must look to warn employees against their subtle microaggressions and microinvalidations and teach people how to adequately handle them when at the receiving end without repercussion.

There is much to do to make us a truly inclusive society at work. And that change begins within us. To curb our own subtle bad behaviours.

So catch yourself, correct yourself, give permissions to others to correct you.

And for God’s sake, don’t ever take advantage of anyone’s brain freeze.

Aparna Jain is an Integral Master Coach and the author of Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do. (HarperCollins 2016)

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Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 17:35:08 IST

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