I was recently coaching a young woman who has been promoted to a very senior position in a global corporation. She is an outperformer, smart, and very knowledgeable in her domain. And she is the only woman among her peers in a very male-dominated work environment.
After only 6 months she restructured the function and created a highly motivating work environment for her team who, after some interviews, appeared very motivated and happy to work with her.
But, there is a BUT. During our last coaching sessions, she told me that her male peers and the boss started making derogatory remarks about women like "yes we know that when women get involved they get very nervous", or that she was promoted because the company had to meet the diversity and inclusion requirements.
These episodes made her feel diminished and terribly alone, but she did not realize that she had the right to react and that many other women were in the same situation.
I told her that she was not alone and that what she was experiencing was called “microaggressions”, the definition of which is “A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, such as racial et ethnic minority” (Oxford Dictionary).
Even if the above definition gives as an example “racial and ethnic minority”, microaggressions show against any kind of minority, like in this case our young woman executive.
When I told her that this was an unfortunately common situation, on one side she felt less alone, but on the other side she realized how this awareness raised a feeling of injustice and anger: “why do such things happen, it’s so unfair!”.
Microaggressions are insidious because the person, being alone, does not realize that they are unfair and unacceptable. Therefore, she herself diminishes her negative feelings with considerations like "it's nothing" or "he must have been a little pissed off, but it wasn't against me". Even the victim of microaggressions is not aware that in reality, little by little, they are working on her, but she carries on. In reality, over time, they contribute to making her feel uncomfortable, shutting her voice down, and letting others continue with these derogatory remarks.
How Group Coaching can be beneficial?
The worst is that the microaggressor himself does not realize that he is aggressive nor the effects that his words have on the other. Often he hides it under the pretext of humor or jokes.
During the coaching, I helped my client to become aware of the injustice of microaggressions and to respond in a firm and non-aggressive way to stop them.
A powerful solution to fight microaggressions is Group Coaching. One of the key success factors of Group Coaching is that it creates a safe space where participants can open up without fear of being judged. Everyone has a voice that is heard and respected. During my experience as a facilitator, I noticed that not only in female-only groups but also in mixed groups, female or other minority leaders, raise cases about feeling diminished in the workplace.
When they bring episodes of microaggression to the group, it becomes a place where they can find people who listen to them with empathy and help them overcome these difficult episodes.
What is most interesting are the reactions of their male colleagues. First, they become aware of the phenomenon, of which they did not know the existence, then they help their colleagues to find solutions. But above all, they become ambassadors in the fight against microaggressions. As they have been made aware, they realize that it is also up to them to help alert and stop the aggressors.
What is the solution?
Hereafter, I highlight the best solutions that leaders experienced with success for facing microaggressions.
Admittedly, the first reaction is to become aggressive or ironic in turn, with the risk of being perceived as "hysterical". Therefore, it’s important to act appropriately.
The first step is to acknowledge that there is something “off” in the micro-aggression. They are not right and are unfair. The problem is not the victim, but the aggressor.
Second, train to find a voice, instead of “freeze” because of the surprise or the astonishment. At first, it’s difficult, thus the training, because the aggression makes the victim speechless.
Third, relax and respond appropriately, for example, as follow:
- Highlight the facts: "this sentence is inappropriate"
- Express your feelings: "because it gives me the feeling of being devalued and the impression of not being able to defend myself because I am alone in this situation"
- Ask to stop: "so I ask you not to make these remarks anymore".
During the following session with my young female leader, we examined together how this technique worked…and it worked! She told me that her male colleagues stopped and were much more attentive to what they said in front of her.
To face the microaggressions, I invite you first of all to come out of loneliness. Talk about it around you and find allies who can accompany you to free yourself from it.