The term “microagression” has been around since the ‘70s, when it was coined by an MIT professor, and became part of pop culture through a Tumblr series where users submitted their stories and experiences.
I’m on my way to meet up with some co-workers in the tech industry. As I’m entering the pub, I wave to the group and make my way to the table. As I’m walking, an older man in a business suit - also trying to get to his business meeting - puts his hand lightly on my waist as he squeezes through. It seems polite and friendly to outsiders. It’s definitely acceptable in our society. I sit down to tell my group what just happened and the response is not shock or outrage; no, it’s something more demoralizing. My male co-workers say I’m overreacting and none of the women speak up to defend me.
A typical day of microagressions starts with a man in the elevator telling me to smile because it’s Friday, then being talked over in a meeting by a male coworker, and later, at a bar, being brushed past with full-body contact by another man.
It’s common for my generation to dismiss feminism as unnecessary for our time. The perception that sexism doesn’t happen anymore, or that it’s just some women being difficult, or that it’s a first-world problem, is fundamentally an issue.
“What people don't realize is that all the sexist microaggressions women face on a daily basis add up to something more than just a single instance of harassment or one off handed comment. After days, weeks, months, and years of being objectified, shamed, policed, and stereotyped, women grow to feel inferior and unsafe. In fact, we often learn to adopt sexist attitudes toward ourselves, rendering the everyday sexism we face mere icing on the cake of internalized misogyny.”- Suzannah Weiss
Subtle sexism is part of everyday life for most women, but it’s so common that it’s almost invisible, even to the women who have dealt with it their whole lives. From the day we are born, we have labels imposed on us. We are told that our worth depends on who desires us, that our power is in giving or withholding sex and whether or not we conform to societal standards of beauty.
Whether people admit it or not, they treat women differently in social settings and in the workplace. Even women, themselves, do this. In one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, STEM professors were less likely to hire a fictional candidate named Jennifer for a lab manager position than one named John, even though the applications were identical. They also offered "John" more money.
“This pattern existed regardless of the professor's gender. Even when presented with evidence like this, men have trouble believing gender bias is real, which makes it that much harder to combat.” -Corinne A. Moss-Racusin
We need to remember our worth every day, which takes constant awareness and toughness, and takes a toll on our energy, focus, and social approval - a gender disadvantage from day one.
These are the day-to-day microagressions that women deal with:
Words and language are used to insult, objectify, or render women invisible. Slang terms for female body parts, like “pussy”, are used to describe losing power. Terms like “mankind” suggest that males are superior, and phrases like “suck it” are sexually threatening.
When a man touches a woman’s body casually, or comments on her body, that tells us that our bodies are not our own and that we’re not safe. This leads to constant fear and distrust.
The choice of how revealing our clothing is determines our worth, morals, and safety. “Slutty” clothing means we are vulnerable to sexual harassment and that it’s our fault.
When women are sexually assaulted or harassed, the police, the media, and the people around them tell them that they must have done something to cause it, instead of men facing consequences.
Women who behave assertively, particularly in the workplace, are called bossy, bitchy, shrill, aggressive, or pushy, while men who behave in the same manner are viewed as competent leaders.
Women are told that they are too polite, or that they are using emotional language and need to be more assertive. Upspeak (the inflection upwards at the end of sentences) makes us sound uncertain.
Patronizing speech, or explaining something to a woman that she already knows. This reminds us that our knowledge and expertise are considered less valuable than men’s, even when we happen to know more than them.
Women are told to lose weight, stay toned, and conform to the media’s size standards in order to maintain attractiveness.
Mothers are shamed for breastfeeding, for not breastfeeding, for working, and for not working. Women are also shamed for not being mothers. Women are told their biological clocks are ticking, inferring that a childless woman is incomplete.
Our menstruation has become the source of jokes, social media censorship, and dismissal of emotions. These derogatory attitudes toward menstruation lead us to believe we are disgusting and irrational.
Female stereotypes are considered funny but actually perpetuate beliefs used as evidence for our inferiority.
Our worth is determined by our visual appearance. If a women is not considered attractive, she is worthless. The media reminds us that providing sexual pleasure is our role.
The Wage Gap
Women make 77% of what men do for working full-time, which reflects both a lack of women in high-paying positions, and a disparity in wages for the same positions.
Whether people admit it or not, they will treat people differently because they are women in social settings and in the workplace. Even women themselves do this.
When we try to call out all the behaviours above, we get told we are too easily offended, or that we are sensitive or bitchy. This leads us to silently accepting injustice rather than speaking out about it.