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'Small jabs': Women 89% more likely to experience gender-based 'microaggressions' at work

Erin Fuchs
·Deputy Managing Editor
·3 min read
 The world's most potent economy is dying at a worrisome pace. (Wire Images)
When women's comments are ignored during meetings, it's considered a microaggression. Source: Getty Images

Women are 89% more likely than men to report experiencing subtle discrimination known as microaggressions in the workplace, according to a new survey from Verizon Media.

The survey from Yahoo Finance parent Verizon (VZ) questioned 264 male and 223 female employees around the U.S. (not including Verizon employees) to better understand how workplace issues affect men and women differently. Women respondents were more likely to report facing certain barriers than men. They were less likely to feel their employers supported them professionally, or to agree that their workplaces offered flexibility for caregivers.

And notably, they were significantly more likely to say they faced gender-based microaggressions — with 17% of respondents reporting they’d faced this subtle discrimination. That’s compared to just 9% of men.

‘They add up over time’

In a post-#MeToo era spurred by allegations against accused serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, microaggressions might not garner as much attention or alarm as more egregious harassment, unwanted advances, and even assault in the workplace. However, workplace microaggressions — unconscious or subtle bias against marginalized groups like racial minorities and women — can take a toll, even though they may not spur legal action.

“The reason they’re called microaggressions is that they’re subtle, or smaller things,” said L. Camille Hébert, a professor at the Ohio State University’s College of Law, who specializes in employment matters. “They still add up in the sense of ... they end up making women feel like they don’t have a place in the workplace. ... They add up over time so they have some of the same effects on women as harassment does.”

For those who might be unfamiliar with the term “microaggressions,” one common example that experts cite occurs when a female or a minority raises a point during a meeting that others in the meeting overlook. Later, when a white male colleague makes the same point, other colleagues may heap praise on the same sentiment that was just ignored. Or, as Hébert noted, perhaps a coworker or supervisor will ask a male employee about substantive, work-based subjects while inquiring about a female employee’s family.

For their part, Verizon Media’s survey respondents offered examples such as being told they were “too assertive.” One respondent described these perceived microaggressions as “small jabs, not thinking I’m qualified enough, ignoring statements at meetings.”

The law doesn’t “necessarily provide a clear remedy” for this type of behavior, according to David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University in Boston.

That’s because the main legal standards to consider when judging whether a work environment is hostile are whether the behavior is severe or pervasive — neither of which would typically apply to subtle discrimination that could be an unconscious, one-off comment or action. Moreover, these behaviors don’t typically result in a concrete action, like loss of a promotion or job, which could also make an employer legally liable for sexual harassment.

Still, microaggressions are not a sign of a healthy workplace, according to Hébert and Yamada.

“My guess is in a workplace where you have a lot of microaggressions, you probably also have more serious behaviors as well, because the serious stuff is usually culturally validated and enabled,” Yamada said. “It’s not like you would go from zero to, say, the worst kinds of sexual harassment possible without behaviors in between that may or may not be liability issues.”

The survey’s other findings include that women are less likely than men to feel supported in their professional endeavors — 61% of females versus 72% of males. And more men (52%) than women (42%) believe there is flexibility for caregivers in their workplace.

Erin Fuchs is deputy managing editor at Yahoo Finance.

More on Women’s History Month:

Barbara Bush’s advice to women in the workplace: ‘Don’t let others define you’

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