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How to Mitigate Male Microaggressions at Work

Offhand sexist comments can feel like a normal part of the workplace, but they're harmful. Here's how to make them stop

By Christine Dodd

I can’t recall exactly when it started, but I know it was at a young age. As a recent college graduate, I was working on Capitol Hill. I started hearing the words:

Aggressive.
Aloof.
Cold.
Ambitious.

Words that when used to describe a man were positive. But when used about me meant I was a problem.

I made the decision early on to enter a highly competitive space (politics), in a highly competitive place (Washington, D.C.), a venue where many valedictorians land. And I wasn’t scared when I took this big step solo at age 21. Like many of you, I am a child of the ’80s. I grew up being told I could be anything I wanted to be. My dad was critical and demanding, but my mom was uber-supportive, perhaps akin to today’s helicopter mom. The balance of the two was generally the right mix, and I left college feeling excited and confident to venture into the workforce. I never thought that something so simple as a “man” would be getting in my way for 30 years.

But it wasn’t long before I heard the labels. Small but perennial microaggressions at work launched at smart and determined women. I was admonished by senior male Congressional staffers for being “aggressive” in legislative negotiations — even though I was successful in securing the outcome my boss was seeking.  

And it wasn’t just me. My chief of staff referred to a female subordinate as “emotional” and “irrational” when she wouldn’t capitulate to a lobbyist’s demand for change in policy in exchange for a campaign contribution. It was everywhere, and I honestly think I lost out on some jobs because of personality traits that would be valued, even revered, if displayed by the male species. 

After leaving the government, where there really is no HR, to join the private sector, I mistakenly thought these comments would cease and desist. At this point, I was no longer viewed as a “little girl.” I was well into my 30s now, so more seasoned and polished. But it didn’t take long for my boss to start insulting me — asking me to coordinate a wine/cheese party (and fetch the food and libations) for a political fundraiser because I was a “sorority girl” and “good at these types of things.” Later, when he was frustrated during a long legislative battle on health care reform, he pulled me into an office. He shut the door and proceeded to draw a picture of my head with a question mark inserted into my brain. “You only have questions . . .  you can’t find solutions to problems. This is how your brain works,” he admonished me.  

Of course, I knew this was sexist behavior exhibited by an insecure, albeit more powerful, man. I decided to engage in what I thought would be the proper course — going to HR. Let’s be clear, though. HR, although the alleged appropriate venue for reporting gender discrimination, works for and gets paid by the company. HR has its loyalty to the man, quite literally, not you. While HR did launch an investigation, and did find my claims accurate and meritorious, they basically did nothing except make him enroll in a sensitivity training course.  

It’s really no wonder women just give up when this happens, and like me spend 30 years just putting up with this crap. The blatantly sexist words and actions are harmful because they end up shaking women’s confidence, gaslighting them. Am I too aggressive? Should I smile more at work and be more of a people pleaser? Am I cold? Is there something fundamentally wrong with me? These are the questions you start to ask yourself.  

However, the real question we should be asking ourselves is: “Is this something you would say to a man in the same situation?” And at age 50, this is exactly what I asked my boss after he referred to me on several occasions (in private and in public settings) as “aggressive” when presenting new ideas or a fresh strategy. He also later reported to me (for reasons still unclear) that other men found one of my presentations to be “condescending, aloof and cold.” This time, I decided to bypass the often ineffective HR and go straight to the source during my annual review. While I knew this was risky and fully realized it might set him off, I felt that finally I had come into my own and had the confidence and wisdom needed to confront these microaggressions at work. And I said to him, “I don’t know why you use these words to describe me. I don’t know why you think when a woman presents a new perspective, or is calm during a presentation, that she is aggressive or aloof.” I asked: “Would you say those same things to a man? I honestly don’t think so.”

You might be surprised at the result. The microaggressions stopped immediately. In fact, I never heard them again, from him or anyone else at the company. Yes, it is plausible that he was scared. He could have spoken  with HR, and they coached him for fear of a lawsuit. I honestly don’t know. But I can tell you in the aftermath, I did negotiate a better employment contract for myself with terms that were beneficial to me, not them. And I do think I engendered a certain degree of respect by setting a boundary and speaking my truth. 

I’ve heard the phrase, people will treat you like you let them treat you. I think there’s some truth to that. I used to avoid conflict with my bosses, and accept pejorative terms about myself. And as a result, I started doubting everything about myself as a woman. It’s harmful. It’s destructive. And it erodes one’s self-esteem. So if I were to give you any advice on how to mitigate male microaggressions at work, I would say go right to the perpetrator, let him know these words — the same words that would be helping you climb the corporate ladder if you were a man in the workplace — will no longer be tolerated by you. You would be surprised. For once, things might actually change in your favor. And as we know from the #MeToo movement, one woman can light the match that then burns the fire — changing things for all women at work.

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