Gender Equality

Do sweat the small stuff: microaggression matters

It’s the little stuff. Sexist jokes. Racist stereotypes. Backhanded compliments. These are microaggressions and they affect people every day.

Microaggressions hold back women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and others, but in a different way than structural impediments of the type usually discussed on this blog. Microaggressions are more like bullying, while the structural issues affect entire groups.

When individuals point out microaggressions, they risks experiencing even more of them, such as jocular responses intended to suppress discussion. “Listen, sugar, if you want to be part of the team, you’ve got to have a sense of humor.”

More extreme responses happen, too. For example, Amitai Etzioni suggests that you Don’t Sweat the Microggressions, and argues that there are much more deserving problems in the world.

Let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro. Where? See tomorrow’s headlines. People are killing each other because they belong to the “wrong” confessional group, race, or country—in many parts of the world.

It’s like telling women to settle down and spend a little time thinking about how awful life is for their sisters in Saudi Arabia before they get all worked up about a few injustices here in “the West.”

But microaggressions do affect people, in their careers and beyond. Some research suggests that microaggressions directed at students who belong to ethnic minorities lead to increases in anxiety, binge alcohol use and other drinking related consequences.


Women are targets, too, and they react to microaggressions with feelings of humiliation or guilt, or even with fear. They start avoiding certain situations. As we learn more about microaggression, we must find ways to counter its role in the careers of those targetted.

The Norwegian journal Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift (New Norwegian Journal) is currently fascilitating such a debate. Their first article on this topic suggested that a focus on microaggression may do more to improve conditions for working women than the traditional focus on affirmative action does.

I wrote their second piece, in which I argued that this position is too strong, and that traditional measures also are forces for cultural change. I explain in my article some basic misunderstandings about the most extreme of affirmative actions, namely quotas, and show that the assumption that they necessarily lower quality is false.

Instead of summarizing more here, I’ll refer you to the English language version of my essay, Quotas, microaggression and meritocracy. If you read Norwegian, that published version is also available.

Whichever version you read, it’s clear that our conception of the different experiences men and women have in their working lives must be enhanced to include microaggression. And it’s clear that this is worth sweating about.

I’m just starting to read the research literature on microaggression. If you, too, think this is a topic worth our sweat, please share this posting on your favorite social media, and let’s work together to start a debate. Thanks for RTs, shares, and all other ways of getting the discussion going.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


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