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Fleeting and often casually delivered, microaggressions can happen anywhere, from the workplace to the classroom to the street.gremlin

Have you experienced a microaggression in your place of work? Or could you be a microaggressor?

Fleeting and often casually delivered, microaggressions can happen anywhere, from the workplace to the classroom to the street. They can range from asking an individual, “Where are you really from?” to complimenting a colleague on being “articulate” or asking to touch their hair. It could be telling someone they look great for their age or saying, “You don’t look trans.”

Often indirect and possibly unintentional, microaggressions can be racist, sexist, ageist or ableist, serving to reinforce stereotypes and further marginalize people. According to recent data, it’s commonplace behaviour. In McKinsey’s 2022 Gender Diversity at Work report, more than 60 per cent of senior-level women reported experiencing at least one form of microaggression during their day-to-day work.

Women of colour reported experiencing microaggressions more than any other group of workers, such as having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise (28 per cent), hearing others express surprise at their language skills (15 per cent) or being confused with someone else of the same ethnicity (14 per cent). In a 2019 Survey Monkey survey of over 4,000 U.S. workers, 60 per cent said they witnessed or potentially witnessed microaggressions in the workplace.

Identifying and ‘unlearning’ harmful behaviours

In an effort to shed more light on this issue and create change, Toronto-based creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo recently designed and developed an online tool called The Micropedia of Microaggressions alongside co-creators including the Black Business and Professional Association, the Canadian Congress on Diversity and Workplace Equity, Pride at Work Canada, and Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute.

Launched in December, the free directory allows users to identify microaggressions, understand their harmful impact on mental and physical health and discover ways to unlearn those behaviours. It will be regularly updated and is also considered to be a diversity training tool for any organizations who opt to use it.

“We jumped at the opportunity [to be involved], because we know this tool will help to reduce the significant mental and emotional impact that microaggressions have on racialized and minoritized groups,” says Alex Ihama, executive director of the Canadian Congress on Inclusive Diversity & Workplace Equity.

He notes that for a tool like this to help bring about change in work environments, both “the majority and marginalized folks must raise their level of awareness.”

Jade Pichette, Pride at Work Canada’s manager of programs, says that their organization hopes the Micropedia will result in “people recognizing their own unconscious biased actions, what may be loaded language or actions for equity-deserving communities and recognize that we have work to do that is shared among equity-deserving groups.”

‘Death by 1000 cuts’

The tool comes at an important time, as many employees are returning to work after operating virtually for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to recent research by KPMG Canada, more than 44 per cent of Black Canadians say they have not experienced any microaggressions or acts of racism at work over the last 18 months. (Nearly a third reported experiencing continued microaggressions and racism at work, including 14 per cent who said it increased.) Many said they are “worried about what will happen” when they return to the office.

Wendy Cukier, founder and director of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, says that while overt discrimination is, in some ways, easier to identify and address, microaggressions, like a “death by 1000 cuts,” are insidious and often leave victims doubting themselves and feeling that they are unable to respond.

“Depending on their knowledge and experience, bystanders and even allies may not recognize them,” says Dr. Cukier. “There is some research … to suggest that some members of equity-deserving groups prefer to continue working remotely because in spite of the challenges, working from home has provided safe haven from the experience of microaggressions day in and day out.”

To mitigate some of this potential harm, the Diversity Institute also provides a range of strategy development and training programs that can be used alongside the Micropedia, including a diversity assessment tool for businesses to determine just how inclusive they are.

Dr. Cukier notes that organizations trying to create more inclusive work environments often struggle to balance the need to address microaggressions with the potential to place an undue burden or “emotional tax” on those who are on the receiving end of these affronts.

“The Micropedia tool may be useful in supporting the identification and understanding of [this] subtle and very harmful form of discrimination, and is just one resource that can be used as part of a broader commitment and action to creating a more inclusive workplace,” she says.

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I work in mid-level management in marketing and have an undergraduate degree. I am very ambitious and looking for ways to set myself up for advancement, and I’m interested in getting some extra training and/or education to that end. I live in Vancouver but am also interested in programs I could do remotely. What programs are the most worthwhile to pursue?

We asked Caroline Power, CEO of Canadian HR Solutions Inc., to field this one:

There are two big aspects of capability that people need to pick up as they move forward in their careers. First, you need something that builds your business acumen and helps you understand the business that you are in. Some examples of programs like this might be titled, “Financial Analysis for Non-Finance Professionals,” “Financial Analysis for Project Managers” or “Financial Analysis for Human Resources Professionals.” It’s ideal to get a program that is discipline-specific because the curriculum will be tailored through the lens of your discipline.

The second capability-set a person needs is something that develops their emotional intelligence. As we advance in our careers, our work becomes more about leading other people, and we need to be effective at leading those who report to us as well as supporting our peers. Any kind of course that helps build emotional intelligence is beneficial.

Additionally, within that emotional intelligence capability-set, leaders need to have expertise around critical conversations – those that are easy to have and those that are not so easy to have. Whether it’s a course involving coaching or mediation training, it’s about your ability to regulate your own emotions and have important conversations with others when the stakes are high.

In terms of course delivery format, have your personal situation guide that decision. Your options are in-person, virtual or e-learning. While some people have a preference for in-person training, it is worth noting that over the last two years, many training companies have embraced technology and leveraged it so much that they are now able to deliver world-class virtual and e-learning training interventions. As a result, you will find that the quality of virtual and e-learning courses available today is better than it was in the past.

When it comes to fitting the additional training into your life, I’m a big believer in ensuring that the most important things are completed first: things that directly support your personal values and interests. We can neither do it all nor be everything to everyone. Therefore, space your courses out and be sure to schedule in both class time and homework time so that the work gets done, with time also available to take of the important people in your life. Be sure to choose a provider whose teaching style you’re comfortable with, so that while you’re learning the material, you’re also enjoying the process.

Remember to celebrate your successes. When you have completed a part of the program or you have come to a critical juncture in the training, treat yourself in some way. The celebration piece is necessary because it acknowledges that you have moved forward on a goal that you set for yourself, you have completed a segment of it, and you have kept a promise to yourself.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.