A friend of mine was pressed against the bar in a crowded club when she was bumped by a dancing man. He placed his hand on the small of her back and apologized.
Wrong move, buddy.
She shot him a lethal look, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Also a wrong move, as he didn’t notice the impact he had on my friend.
Such unwitting entitlement when touching someone’s body without their permission is all too common. These seemingly innocent transgressions are known as microaggressions: intentional or unintentional comments or actions directed against a person (who usually is part of a marginalized group, such as women) that are inherently hostile or derogatory, according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor who studies and writes on the topic. Microaggressions aren’t full-on aggressions. They’re usually subtle, and even the most well-meaning person can unknowingly cause annoyance and even harm through unconscious bias and insensitive actions.
To help foster a more inclusive culture, here are six rules to help everyone avoid making gender-based microaggressions.
1. Think about how you touch and speak to women
The microaggression that happened to my friend is one that Nadal sees all the time on the street: “If a woman is walking in a crowded space, a lot of times men will pass by them and put their hands on their waist or on the nape of their back, and that’s something that’s very invasive and intrusive and assaultive.” Comparatively, Nadal observes that men avoid physical contact when they walk by other men in crowds, doing things like putting their hands in the air.
What should you do? Be conscious of the space around you and how you navigate it so you don’t touch someone without their consent.
Catcalling is another problem that women face frequently, and it can quickly morph from a microaggression into a full-out aggression. So don’t catcall, yell at women, or comment on people’s looks.
And, if someone speaks up against a microaggression or tells you they were hurt by what you did or said, don’t argue that it didn’t happen. All too often, when women speak up against a microaggression like catcalling, men reply that they weren’t hurting or threatening the woman, Nadal says. This is gaslighting, which makes someone question their version of reality, and can do further damage. Gaslighting is often the reason women and people from other marginalized groups don’t confront their perpetrators.
Along with everyone avoiding those mistakes in the first place, Nadal suggests that women talk about these experiences with trusted individuals so they don’t take in negative messages about themselves.
2. Don’t insist women prove their qualifications if you wouldn’t ask the same of a man
Despite the societal gains women have clearly made, such as earning more university degrees than men, increasing their numbers in the workforce, and holding more Congressional offices than ever, there are still people who insist women just aren’t as qualified as men.
Nunes can speak to this personally. As a black woman with the traditionally male first name Christian, she recalls a particularly stinging experience: She believes she was called in for an interview under the assumption that she was a man. During the interview, Nunes says she was grilled for 45 minutes, told she needed more experience for the executive director position, and ultimately offered a lower-level case manager role.
This was the first time a company questioned her professional experience, Nunes says, and she believes she didn’t receive the executive-level job offer because she’s a black woman.
Such constant pressure to validate your experience is discouraging, Nunes says. When you experience microaggressions, your body internalizes them on a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. Nunes believes this specific gender-based microaggression contributes to imposter syndrome — the feeling that you are not qualified for your job, even when, often, you probably are.
People should be mindful about their biases, perceptions, and expectations of women. They must challenge their values that make them think women are lesser than men and act in a way that does not put women down, Nunes recommends.
3. Don’t assume women aren’t as smart as men
Nadal brings up the example of a woman raising her hand in a classroom or meeting and no one listens to her. “But when a man says the same exact thing, he actually gets credit for what she had previously said,” he says.
“These microaggressions really try to silence women … a lot of times they’re unconscious, but sometimes they’re intentional,” Nunes explains, adding that making women question their abilities and themselves adds up and negatively affects women’s mental health.
Churches can relate. She says the workplace was set up for men to be successful, not women, and in many ways it’s still based on the old model, in which men were the primary breadwinners and women were largely at home. Employers need to promote a workplace culture that allows everyone, not just men, to shine, Churches says.
The assumption that women aren’t as intelligent as men can rear its ugly head even before a woman applies for a job. It can result in job exclusion, and is a financial detriment to everyone, Churches says.
“Our paradigms have to shift… we really benefit from having different voices at the table because that means our problem-solving skills are enhanced,” she explains.
To do better, take a step back before you speak, consider the conversation you want to have, and avoid defensive behavior or arguments.
4. Don’t tell women how to behave
It isn’t fun to be treated like a 5-year-old when you are, in fact, an adult. Unfortunately, many women are regularly told how to act, especially in the workplace.
Churches, for her part, has heard it all. Throughout her career, people have warned her against raising her voice because it’s not feminine; meanwhile, male coworkers speak loudly without repercussions. Like many women, she’s also been told to smile. “You never hear a man being told to smile more,” she says.
These kinds of gendered expectations put extra demands on women to behave in a certain way, which undercuts women’s experiences, skills, and abilities.
It’s a trap, too. Women are expected to be “attractive” and “likable.” This backfires because women are also seen as less commanding and competent when they behave this way, Churches explains. There’s no way to win: “If a woman comes across as strong, she is often considered too aggressive or even a ‘bitch.'”
People should think about whether they are asking women to behave in a certain way, and in doing so, realize how unfair and burdensome these requests are.
And, when someone feels this is being done, they can speak up as well, if they feel comfortable. When people police how Churches behaves, she attempts to disarm the person by saying “Let’s not go there,” “I don’t think that’s what you meant. You might have meant x, y, or z,” or “What do you mean by that?”
It’s important to explain why what they’re saying is not OK, Churches explains.
5. Don’t shoehorn women into traditional gender roles
Assuming women need to operate solely in the domestic sphere is one of the most common gender-based assumptions. Men in heterosexual relationships often fall into the trap of thinking their partner should take care of them without doing the same for them in return, Nadal says. They simply assume women should be the primary caregiver, handling childcare, cooking, and cleaning.
Straight men aren’t the only ones who are at fault. “Gay and bisexual men certainly have internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and gender role norms, which can also result in problems in their romantic relationships,” Nadal writes in an email.
People, such as men in positions of power, can be surprised when women do not fill these roles, he says. On the other hand, they can assume a woman wants to have children, and if she doesn’t, there’s something wrong with her.
Churches has dealt with this microaggression her entire career. In mid- and senior-level positions, she says, she’s been the only woman, and men have assumed she should perform domestic duties, such as pouring coffee.
“I’ve literally had to sit on my own hands and just look down to wait for a male colleague to do it so we don’t get into those gendered roles in the office,” Churches explains.
The same presumptions extend to her 11-year-old daughter, who plays baseball. “Everyone always assumes, ‘Oh well, Ruby must play softball.’ Absolutely not. She plays baseball and has no interest in softball.” Churches says.
Gender-based beliefs begin early in childhood — and these expectations can keep kids from following their passions.
People looking to avoid this microaggression just need to be a bit more thoughtful, Nadal advises.
“It’s just really being mindful of the way that we treat people and the ways that we presume things of people and making sure that we don’t perpetuate further biases or stereotypes,” Nadal says.
6. Don’t assume gender is a binary.
It can be easy to forget that gender-based microaggressions impact the entire gender spectrum. To that end, it’s important to be mindful of gender-based microaggressions directed toward transgender people and gender queer people, Nadal says.
For example, “People who misgender people by calling them by pronouns that they don’t use. That’s another form of a microaggression,” he says.
It goes beyond words. For a trans or genderqueer person, being misgendered is a reminder that the world is an oppressive place and that people may not value their lives and identities.
What you should do is simply ask people what their pronouns are before making assumptions. Institutions can also normalize this by asking people to include their pronouns when they introduce themselves to someone new, such as at meetings or workshops, Nadal advises.
This helps people get used to thinking outside of the gender binary and become more conscious about being respectful and inclusive.
Nadal recommends learning about other people’s experiences (especially minority groups), explaining that it’s a good way to understand what someone is going through. “It’s also just very important to read and to listen to people’s narratives of what their experiences are like,” he says.
A world full of gender-based microaggressions doesn’t have to be the norm. Take a second before you speak to think about the impact your words or actions may have.