Tyra* is a master’s degree student with a full-time job. She says she encounters microaggressions all the time: "It's my first day of class in my program. We're waiting for the class to open up and this man starts chatting me up, asking about why I chose this program. He seemed nice enough, but then he says, 'I would have thought you would pursue, like, fashion or something.' He must have noticed the look on my face because he added, 'I just mean I don't see a lot of women going after MBA degrees.' Even though I knew this guy was just being a jerk, if I'm being honest, I felt a little less confident walking into class after that. But mainly because I'd already had some doubts about doing this big new thing, and his comment just didn't help."
Many women work to build confidence—and even feel confident on the day to day—but microaggressions have a way of needling at our deepest insecurities. "I can't tell you how many times I've worked with women who have been deeply affected by microaggressions and don't even know it,” says Ava Bomani, a licensed clinical social worker. “It's not until we have several sessions or uncover some serious trauma that they realize their confidence has been damaged little by little."
When you experience a microaggression, it might feel like a stereotype at first, which makes it easier, in theory, to let it roll off your shoulders. Stereotypes are, by definition, untrue. But these passing jabs are about buildup, and they can prompt you to feel alienated from your coworkers or less qualified to do your job.
“You now feel like you have to show up differently, and it puts pressure on you,” says Brittney Oliver, specifically referring to racial microaggressions. Oliver is the founder of Lemons 2 Lemonade, an event and content platform helping millennials navigate career challenges. “People don't realize that Black people are already groomed to walk in white spaces being twice as good. It's an armor we walk out of our homes with. We already have this pressure before we even open our mouths. Although we are equipped with the armor, we start to second-guess if we are good at what we do. It creates doubt that we carry from job to job.”
Bomani echoes this thought: "The women I work with have endured a lifetime of slights about their weight, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, their age. In more ways than one, they've been told that they're simply not good enough."
It is this buildup of doubt and frustration that often leads to reduced confidence. In his 1995 book, Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster, psychiatrist and lifelong scholar Chester M. Pierce says that although microaggressions initially seem harmless, experiencing them repeatedly over time can lead to “flattended confidence.” This finding can also be applied to microaggressions across the board—weight, education level, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, everything.
The embarrassment some women feel after experiencing a microaggression can also take a toll, particularly when someone targets them in front of others. “I remember being an intern at a Washington D.C. public affairs firm,” Oliver says. “There was a meeting where all of the interns were invited but there were only two Black people in the room: me and a junior staff member that got me the internship. One of the senior leaders was talking and mentioned a woman did ‘something,’ and she glanced at the room and said, ‘Her,’ and pointed to me. I had just started that week and had no idea what she was talking about and now all eyes were on me. Before I could say anything, my colleague, the other Black woman, said, ‘No, it was probably me.’ Then, the white woman said, ‘Oh, well they look alike. I knew it was a Black woman.’ We didn't look alike and, again, I was embarrassed because I did not anticipate the attention.”
These situations happen all the time. According to a 2018 study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, 64 percent of women report experiencing microaggressions at work. Sixty-four percent. And while comments might float into the abyss for some, women, Oliver and others, remember them. "A microaggression is like hearing mean things being spewed at you, but no one else hears it,” says one gender perception study. “That's how unnoticeable they can be. As women, we know what's being said to us. But other people might brush it off. And they expect us to brush it off, too."
The power of many
Does sharing stories like these matter? According to researchers, yes. For confidence, yes.
In their 2018 book Microaggression Theory: What the Future Holds, authors Gina Torino, David Rivera, Christina Capodilupo, Kevin Nadal, and Derald Sue say future training aimed at preventing microaggressions must include a “consciousness-raising component,” or an awareness and acknowledgement among everyone, even people who are targeted, that microaggressions are happening.
"All it takes is one woman to say, 'I've been there,’” Bomani says. “‘I know what that's like to be pre-judged. You're not alone.’ All it takes is for one woman to say that to another woman. That's how powerful we are. Our shared experiences bring us together so that we can overcome our trauma. And yes, low confidence comes from trauma. And trauma can be triggered by microaggressions."
While Bomani says raising awareness might not eradicate microaggressions, she contends that it can at least empower women to boost their confidence. After all, some women lack confidence after years of experiencing microaggressions because they feel isolated in their experiences and without some form of consensus, will wonder if those microaggressions might be true. (Hello, gaslighting.)
"When a woman speaks up during a meeting and gets interrupted by her male counterparts or by those who hold a higher position than her, she may start to wonder if the message they are indirectly sending is true,” Bomani says. “That her ideas don't matter. Or, that those ideas have no business coming from her because she's not in charge. Once you start questioning the validity of these messages, it's easier for your confidence to break down.”
Thankfully, in recent years, more women have spoken out about facing microaggressions at work, helping women feel a sense of camaraderie in the workplace. Still, creating a sense of social support is just the first step. Representation is also important.
“When you are the only one in certain spaces, you want to be heard and believed,” Oliver says. “In most cases, the aggressor will make you feel that your experiences or feelings are invalid. You can call it out but what change will really happen? Also, will calling it out negatively affect how you are perceived by your colleagues?”
Bomani adds, "Women have got to occupy spaces until people get used to seeing us there, particularly women of color, women who are differently-abled, women with mental health challenges, women in the LGBTQ community. That's where the change happens."
About our sources
Brittney Oliver is the Founder of Lemons 2 Lemonade, which helps millennials turn life’s obstacles around, as well as a career and lifestyle freelance writer contributing to publications like Fast Company and ESSENCE.
Ava Bomani is a dedicated social worker and community organizer who loves helping women. She hopes to create a program for young girls to help combat low self-esteem, abuse, and trauma from a young age.
*Name has been abbreviated to protect this woman's anonymity.