Gender Microaggressions at Work: The Visible and Invisible

At work, this guy is always eyeing me up and down; it makes me feel awful.

During our team meetings, one guy invariably interrupts and talks over all of the women, even the team leader; why doesn’t someone call him out?

I shared with my female colleague that her jokes about women were creating an unhealthy dynamic in the department; she told me I was being too sensitive and should join the #metoo movement.

Gender Microaggressions

Gender microaggressions are defined as brief and everyday verbal and nonverbal behaviors and environmental conditions that communicate demeaning, hostile, and otherwise sexist insults towards women (Nadal, 2010). Nadal also describes three types of gender microaggressions:

  • Gender microassault: Blatant sexism, verbal, nonverbal, and behavioral. For example, verbal demeaning by calling a woman a “bitch” or a “whore.”
  • Gender microinsults: Often unintentional behaviors and statements that still convey negative messages about women. For example, in professional association meetings or classrooms, the convener may call primarily on men although women are raising their hand to speak.
  • Gender microinvalidation: This takes many forms, from exclusion from an activity because of a women’s sex, negating a woman’s ideas with jest, and ignoring a woman in the room of all men, even though she is a co-worker.

Swim, Hyers, Cohen, and Ferguson (2001) also calls these behaviors “everyday sexism” because they occur so often that they then become taken for granted as typical in that setting. We may all be in settings where everyday sexism is ongoing yet fail to notice but make attributions such as: That’s just John, being John; don’t take him seriously; or Carl is basically a good guy, just from an older generation, calling you sweetheart is not a big deal.

Sexual Harassment or Gender Microaggression

About 20 years ago a colleague and I developed a sexual harassment training program for a global firm on the East coast. The leadership was very surprised to learn that their diversity survey results pointed to primarily issues about sexism versus racism. Of course, both identity issues were intertwined, but nevertheless, the findings from women’s voices were alarming. They reported being “ogled” in the cafeteria, touched too much, passed over for promotions, humiliated if they introduced an idea without sufficient data, or asked for time off to pick up a sick child from school.

Indeed, these women reported in focus groups that they felt like they were in a hostile work environment, a form of sexual harassment, but they decided to continue working without pursuing their concerns with HR. The survey provided validation and gave them a voice, and the complaints to HR about what today are called gender microaggressions began to increase.

Your Workplace

No work setting or classroom is immune to gender microaggressions. Quite often individuals plead that it was “just a joke” or that they did not mean any harm. However, Basford, Offerman, and Behrend (2014) found that:

  • Observers of microaggressions, regardless of gender, perceive greater microaggression against women as the explicitness of discrimination increases
  • Witnesses expect female targets to experience poorer work outcomes following more blatant microaggressions
  • Women were significantly more likely to perceive gender microaggressions

Next Steps

The Arredondo Advisory Group is open to queries about addressing gender microaggressions in the workplace. We employ our competency paradigm of awareness, knowledge and skills or behavior change to guide a work group through a critical dialogue and change process. Change takes place at two levels, the personal and organizational, in order to have a respectful and productive work environment. An educational workshop can go a long way by engaging employee groups in new learning, advocacy for self and others.  We look forward to hearing from our readers.



Basford, T. E., Offermann, L. R., & Behrend, T. S. (2014). Do you see what I see? Perceptions of gender microaggressions in the workplace. Psychology of Women Quarterly38(3), 340-349.

Swim, J. K., Hyers, L. L., Cohen, L. L., & Ferguson, M. J. (2001). Everyday sexism: Evidence for its incidence, nature, and psychological impact from three daily diary studies. Journal of Social Issues57(1), 31-53.

Nadal, K. L. (2010). Gender microaggressions: Implications for mental health. In M. A. Paludi (Ed.), Feminism and Women’s Rights Worldwide, Volume 2: Mental and Physical Health (pp. 155-175). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

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