Microaggressions in the Workplace: Sexism, Racial discrimination and LGBTQIA+ inequity

Image for The workplace can effectively reflect how far we’ve come in tackling prejudice and bias. While many workplaces have made steps in the right direction, it is evident that subtle acts of discrimination – also known as microaggressions – continue to occur in current workspaces.

The workplace can effectively reflect how far we’ve come in tackling prejudice and bias. While many workplaces have made steps in the right direction, it is evident that subtle acts of discrimination – also known as microaggressions – continue to occur in current workspaces. My research focused on three of the categories this phenomenon splits into: gender, race and the LGBTQIA+ community. The goal was to identify not only the reasons behind this issue and provide documentation of the forms it takes but locate real solutions companies can adopt to address and stop discrimination from happening. 

One can presume everyday prejudice continues to pose a problem at work due to behaviours that express racist, sexist or homophobic views. But as I found, it was more complicated than that. I observed that homophily1 played a big role; it merges with the frequent lack of appropriate company regulations to support all workers and creates an intimidating environment for folks in minority groups. For example, when a company does not acknowledge ‘non/binary’ as a valid option in official forms, why would co-workers do so at lunch break? It is also about competitiveness; a surprising discovery. When increasingly competitive office workdays take a toll on workers, bullying is often normalised and the go-to low-blows of choice can be subtly racist, homophobic or sexist remarks. 

Researching subtle acts of discrimination proved thoroughly enlightening. They are one of society’s shortcomings most of us are aware of. However, delving into the specific statistics and personal stories makes you realise the real gravity of the situation. By extension, my findings illustrated that calling everyday discrimination ‘microaggressions’only helps discrimination incidents go unnoticed or sweeps them under the rug. That is because they are directly traced back to big issues and there is frankly nothing ‘micro’2 about them. 

To return to the research itself, it first saddened me to see a trend of Black workers routinely excluded from informal social outings and mentoring opportunities.3 Racial prejudice can indeed take many forms, even that of over validation.4 Asian workers are repeatedly reduced to ‘good stereotypes’ like politeness and hard work, only to be later told they need to ‘fix’ their communication style and try to stand out more. Asians are also the racial group I had the most trouble finding credible literature for, their coverage being hardly enough. LGBTQIA+ folk have habitually been disadvantaged in workspaces; conducting dedicated research however, showed me aspects I have not witnessed being recognised before. Exoticising gay/transgender co-workers and their bodies, invalidating their families and partners are parts of the problems that are not spoken about enough. There is (unfortunately) a myriad of accounts narrating such experiences of alienation. I also looked into how women are treated; it looks like they can never win. Stereotypically womanly attributes like attractiveness and motherhood? Unprofessional and objectifiable. Expression of stereotypically masculine attributes like cut-throat competitiveness or good with numbers? Not mentally stable and disliked. Women in male-dominated fields like politics also receive the worst bullying: gendered insults and language of endearment are common forms of harassment they put up with, especially when they have a public presence on social media. 

Perhaps the most frustrating finds were the ideas of racial colour-blindness and thinking of some groups as ‘hypersensitive’. The former theory seeks to deny racism exists by not recognising colour as a legitimate factor in one’s life. The latter microinvalidates people’s experiences of racial discrimination by telling them they are overreacting. Both concepts infuriatingly pursue the silence of harassed individuals by telling them what they experience is not real. 

On the other hand, it was refreshing to see the amount of research out there concerning potential answers to this problem. It appears to me that the two key ingredients for change are teamwork and education. Change can only occur if there is direct communication with the people that it concerns; those not in the majority need to be part of the process. Business leaders that seek equality need to look no further than enforcing policies that have no tolerance against racism, sexism and homophobia. However, here is the kicker: it should start with the people at the top. Recognising international qualifications as equal, including minority workers in diversity meetings and creating a direct feedback line to them about discrimination are steps only people of authority can initiate.  

Studying subtly expressed discrimination in that workplace context ultimately opened up my eyes to the range of day-to-day bias underrepresented communities put up with. It is high time that these legitimate experiences stop being stifled and are instead the example every modern workplace wishes to avoid. Leaders also need to understand ‘microagressions’ does not communicate the severity of this issue. ‘Subtle acts of discrimination' is better suited as it emphasises that these behaviours, while smaller in scale, stem from important, long-standing societal issues. Thus, measures need to be actively enforced to eliminate them within each workspace team. It does not only benefit the marginalised employees, but help businesses thrive as a whole. 

Anna Kiousi

1. The tendency of people to form relationships with persons who are similar to themselves (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook 2001; Wharton, Rotolo, and Bird 2000). 

2. micro < “μικρό” = small (Greek origin).

3. Sloan, M.M., Newhouse, R.J.E. and Thompson, A.B. (2013). Counting on Coworkers: Race, Social Support, and Emotional Experiences on the Job. Social Psychology Quarterly, [online] 76(4), pp.343–372. Available at:https://www.jstor.org/stable/43186705 [Accessed 13 Apr. 2022].

4. Subtle behavior/comments used to ascribe seemingly positive stereotypes (Kim, Nguyen and Block, 2017).