Panel looks at microaggressions in the workplace
The difficulties that women and people of color face on a daily basis often go unnoticed because they are frequently unintentional and damage individuals on a relatively small scale, a panel of scholars told students on Wednesday.
The panel began with a video explaining what microaggressions actually are, defining them as small, unintentionally marginalizing comments that can build up to greater problems over time. “To me, microaggressions are oppression, make no mistake about it,” said Jesse Beal, the director of Amherst College’s Women’s and Gender Center. “Everyone has the opportunity to be a jerk, so that’s why it’s important to make a distinction between conscious offense and unintentional offense.”
Despite the fact that they hold positions of power within their respective fields, the panelists shared personal stories of the microaggressions they have been subjected to at work. “I often have to validate my existence in certain spaces, especially if those spaces are shared with people in institutional power,” said Mareshia Donald, the manager of the Education and Diversity Program of the Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The panelists also considered whether microaggressions affect those who are not aware that they are happening. “I believe that there are folks who do not understand the structures of oppression at work in their lives,” Beal pointed out. “On the flipside, it’s not a matter of lack of education; it’s a lack of insecurity in [aggressors],” added Nurys Camargo, regional director of external affairs at AT&T, referring to the tendency of people to say whatever comes to mind without regard for the effect of their words.
This transitioned into another video comparing microaggressions to mosquito bites; alone they are a nuisance, but over the course of days, months or years, they can be much more damaging. This, the panel posited, is why people who do not experience microaggressions on a daily basis are hesitant to accept the phenomenon as a true mental threat to marginalized communities.
The panel also looked at a series of statistics showing inequality in the workplace along race and gender lines. Most strikingly, a study from the Harvard Business Review showed that women’s confidence and ambition to reach a top position in their company dropped by over 60 percent after two years of work, while men saw no such reduction. “I certainly experience what I feel to be different expectations,” Prof. Sava Berhane (WGS) added. “No credit for doing twice the work. I’m lucky I’m a workaholic, otherwise that would be a real problem,” she joked.
Ultimately, forming relationships with other professionals is the best way to combat microaggressions, the panelists agreed. “If you don’t have a mentor in your field,” Beal told the audience, “go get one.”
“Relationships with your frontline manager make all the difference,” Berhane said, to which Donald added, “We have a lot of dismantling to do, but until you’re in charge of the wrecking ball, you have to build alliances.”
A previous version of this article misspelled Mareshia Donald's name and implied that she is the manager for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Education and Diversity Program. She is actually the manager of the Education and Diversity Program of the Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.