What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are subtle, verbal or non-verbal, comments or everyday actions that consciously or unconsciously exclude, demean or undermine the recipient (often a minority group/person).

The term was originally coined by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe actions or comments against African-American citizens that caused "casual degradation".  

Microaggressions are the most common and often overlooked form of workplace discrimination. 

Inclusify's discrimination dashboard

Microaggressions occur in and contribute to a hostile work environment - and help legitimise other forms of discrimination (e.g. unwanted behaviour and assaults).

It can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly is experienced as a microaggression, as they are subjective, contextual and relational, and we cannot therefore create policies based on them. But if we want to create an inclusive work environment where diversity thrives, we need to be aware of how microaggressions can manifest themselves and what we can do to address them. 

Examples of microaggressions 

Microaggressions relate to the concept of Ruling techniques by women's researcher, Berit Ås, often used against women (e.g. in politics)

  • Invisibility - the individual is overlooked, dismissive body language
  • Ridicule - the person's efforts are mocked or ridiculed
  • Withholding information - the person is kept in the dark about things others are informed about as a matter of course
  • Double punishment - no matter what the person does, they are met with blame, Damned if you do, damned if you don't - likeability bias
  • Imposition of guilt and shame Ridicule, humiliation and defamation

The consequences of microaggressions 

Exposure to microaggressions in the workplace can lead to:

  1. Corrective behaviour or adaptation to the 'norm'. 
  2. Impact on self-esteem, stress and sick leave 
  3. Low psychological safety
  4. Poor opportunity to maintain diversity

This creates workplaces where we cannot get the benefits of diversity, diversity is neutralised and dissatisfaction is increased. 

Why do microaggressions happen? 

Like other forms of discrimination, microaggressions are rooted in unconscious biases, assumptions, stereotypes and notions about the ideal employee.

Minorities in the workplace are particularly vulnerable to microaggressions. 

What can you do to manage microaggressions?

  • If you yourself are exposed 
    • Ask questions such as "Would you say that if...?", "Do I understand you correctly when you say...?", "Do you mean to...?"
    • Say it out loud and possibly make an agreement that your colleague will stand up for you if it happens again

  • If you see others: 
    • Practice inclusive collegiality and stand up for others
    • Give credit for other's comments/input, interrupt those who interrupt and say (...was talking)

Does your workplace need a presentation, workshop or training on how to create workplaces free from microaggressions and discrimination? Contact us below.

Nikoline Nybo

BA Anthropology and Chaos Pilot.

Experience in cultural analysis and anthropological methodology, project management and process design, organizational development and facilitation.

Louise Marie Genefke

Cand. mag. Marketing & Communication, MA Management and External Lecturer AU.

Experience with management, talent and organizational development, facilitation and Employer Branding.