How to respond to microaggressions at work

Been given feedback about your lack of ‘executive presence’? Oh, c’mon, smile; your resting bi*ch face makes you unlikeable. Stop being so emotional; it was just a joke. There’s a good girl; could you get me a cuppa while you’re out?

How’s your blood pressure? Just writing that got ours boiling.

Here’s the thing about sexism in the modern workplace: it’s subtle, insidious, and just as damaging as the wolf-whistles and butt slaps of old. It’s never your responsibility to defend yourself against degrading, infantilising or gendered comments at work – you still risk negative consequences, and not all of us are comfortable making a big fuss over a small comment. But. Doing nothing can feel even worse.

Why not just report sexism? 

In many countries, discrimination is illegal. Retaliation is also illegal – we should be able to report sexism without fear of reprisal. However, the 2023 Deloitte Women @ Work study found that almost half of women respondents had been victims of microaggressions and/or harassment in the last year. Most of them didn’t report it. 

Those numbers reflect the experiences of Powrsuiters we’ve spoken to. From being told to ‘shhh’ (complete with exaggerated hand signal) to being asked to ‘smile more’, examples shared by our community highlight the reality: laws alone don’t change culture. 

Who do you escalate your complaint to when the sexist comment came from the CEO? What if there are no witnesses? What if there are witnesses, but none of them batted an eyelid? 

Whether microaggressions happen in a full boardroom or a one-on-one, reporting them doesn’t always feel like a good option. 

So what do you say? 

We can’t tell you whether or not to report – only you know if you feel safe to do so. What we can do is equip you with some tactics to use in the moment. Allies, you have a big role here. Discrimination can be invisible to everyone but the person it’s directed at. It can also be disguised as caring.

A simple rule: reverse the situation. Would they say it to a man? Would they say it to a white person? If the reserve scenario seems absurd, then the current one is too. Those without a vested interest in addressing an ‘ism are far more persuasive when they stand against them, so here are three ways anyone can respond:

If you hear a disclaimer: 

“I’m not sexist but…” 

That but? It’s your cue to butt in and suggests that whoever is speaking might want to stop right there. Sub out ‘sexist’ for ‘racist’, and the same goes – especially if you’re not part of the group that’s about to be targeted (and even if no one in that group is present).

The words: “In that case, it’s probably best for you not to continue.”

If you have a witty response:

Humour can be your friend, and when used well, it can make a powerful statement. The internet’s hilarity isn’t limited to parodies of Titanic with a cat – wit can solve sexism too. Google ‘funny retorts to [insert sexist comment here]’ and keep some one-liners in your back pocket.

The words:

  • Asked where the coffee is? Say, “I’m not sure, but I’d/she’d like an Americano, thanks!”
  • Told equal pay is too hard? Say, “It’s easy, just lower men’s salaries to what women get” (thanks to the Powrsuiter who shared this one!)
  • Gestured to shhh? Say, “You first”
  • Told to ‘smile more’? Say, “Tell me/us a joke first”

We know, we know, these won’t work in certain power dynamics. So, there’s one more way to challenge microaggressions and sexist comments at work…

Turn the tables:

Pretend to have not heard right. Put the onus on the person who said it to explain it again. They are now in the socially awkward situation of having to repeat/describe/justify their initial comment – which might suddenly feel like a very bad idea. At worst, you could witness a flustered doubling down. At best? An on the spot apology, without you having to defend yourself. 

The words:

  • Been referred to as a ‘good girl’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘missy’ etc etc? Say, “I didn’t quite catch what you called me/said; could you please repeat it?”
  • Asked to smile more? Say, “I didn’t hear what you just asked me/them to do. Could you say it again?”
  • Overheard a sexist ‘joke’? Say, “I didn’t understand. Could you explain the joke?”

30 second action:

Think back to the last microaggression you experienced. How would you specifically respond to it if it happened again? Practise your response out loud.

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