Pass It On: To Counter Sexist Microaggressions At Work, Set Boundaries And Find A Mentor‑Ally Who Can Help
Sexist microaggressions are fairly common in workplaces around the world, especially when they’re directed at a woman’s competence and talent. Here, we sit down with The Swaddle’s founder Karla Bookman, and investor/strategist Rupa Pandit, to find out the best ways to address them realistically, within a male dominated workplace.
Rajvi: Hello, welcome back. So starting off, when we think of sexist microaggressions, what have they looked like in your career?
Rupa: To me, microaggressions always seem like the ones that are subtle, or disguised as a compliment. I’ve had plenty, but I really need to think about which ones were micro, and which ones were aggressive. I remember when I first moved to India, I remember sitting down to lunch with a colleague for the first time, and he said to me in this hushed voice, “So, can you tell me now when was your divorce?” And I was like, “What divorce?” And when I unpacked it, I realized there was this assumption that if I moved as a young twenty-something to India, it must be because I was running away from a problem. Why else would a single woman live in India otherwise?
Karla: I have the same thing — to me they have all felt so aggressive that none of them felt micro. Things as blatant as in a salary negotiation, for example, you get this classic thing of, “Oh you’re not the breadwinner, you don’t need the money so why are we having the conversation?” This, I find out and out extraordinarily sexist, obviously. The more subtle ones are the ones the men in the room don’t pick up on. For example, when you’re the youngest person in a room, and the only female in a room, and the men are all talking to each other, and often over you and there’s this thing of not letting the young woman in the room have her time to speak, and interrupting her, not giving her the floor. So, a major one is having your voice overlooked or sidelined.
Rupa: I would say, like Karla said, in those meetings where you’re the only woman — and I’ve had instances where I’m the most senior person there — I would ask a question and inevitably the counter-party I was meeting would turn to my male colleague to answer the question. As if, it was his question I was representing. And I would constantly maintain eye contact, and in my reaction show I was the one who needs the answer to my question, so can you please look at me? Even my male colleagues sometimes would signal to me, look at me to show it was my question, but it wouldn’t phase the person continuing to give the answer. I’ve also been asked to make copies of things, to take notes, to book travel for a group of people who are traveling even when I’m the most senior woman there. Another thing is, especially in India, people trying to explain India to me like I haven’t been working here for the past 15 years. A lot of it is also in these negotiations where I am arguing, male colleagues, will try to soften what I’m saying, with things like “what she’s trying to say” or “what she means to say.” In the beginning, I thought maybe it’s a good cop or bad cop tactic, but now I just stop them, as I’ve already said what I was trying to say. I don’t need the interpreter sitting next to me.
Rajvi: That’s really interesting. You’ve talked about microaggressions not feeling micro, but I also want to ask whether the subtlety of the sexism sometimes prevents women from identifying any microaggressions as sexist, to speak up about it as a problem. What do you think?
Karla: So, I personally never had that problem. I always saw it as a very sexist attempt to not pay attention to what the woman in the room had to say. The evolution, for me, is I didn’t call it out earlier in my career and I would have gone with it, internalized it, and dealt with it. The difference is that now, I would react differently, I would assert myself.
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Rupa: For sure, the ability to not second-guess and speak up evolved when my seniority evolved in the room. But also I think the conditioning came into play for me in the form of me willing to be the person who takes one for the team, willing to get my hands dirty. I never saw these qualities as something inherent to my gender, but just qualities that one needs when building a business. I would think “okay, I can be the one to book something” or “I can be the one to do the call nobody wants to do” or “I can do the admin stuff really quickly” because it needs to get done and I never saw any task as too small. And I started to see that was sometimes negative and there was a cost to that. I had to deliberately say no, like “okay, it doesn’t matter that I’m willing, there has got to be someone else on the team who is also willing.” And everybody needs to learn that to be a part of any team.
Rajvi: So, tell me about the decision to start saying no, or to call someone out when something sexist was happening. We are told that just speak up, but more often than not it is detrimental to the person who speaks up. How do you reconcile this?
Rupa: I’ve heard plenty of advice around what you should do in a situation like that, mostly along the lines of go against the grain to assert what you deserve. But to me, that didn’t work. What worked better was to be better at my job. Unfortunately, when you’re any kind of minority, you have to always prove you’re as competent, even when you’re more. Just be prepared for that meeting, be more ready with what to say, be more ready with the responses you’d give to your colleagues. When you say something and they don’t even have an idea of what you’re saying, so they can’t mansplain, I’ve found it to be much better than calling someone out. It’s much easier to make sure I was ready every time. I would say no to the admin things, albeit with a gulp in my throat, but to be better at your job I’ve found it to be easier.
Karla: I don’t think it’s possible to call these things out when you’re a junior. I can’t envision a scenario in which you’re called to a meeting with senior men, where nobody is making eye contact with you or speaking directly to you, and you stop the meeting and say “I just think this is incredibly sexist, why isn’t anyone looking at me?” I mean, you would destroy your career at that organization. You can’t have an outburst in the middle of a professional setting. It’s easier to enforce boundaries when you get senior. But that said, even junior people who are relatively disenfranchised in the organization, there are options — you can go to a senior manager outside of the context of that meeting, and say “hey listen, this is happening, how can you help me?” Another is to make sure you work in teams that are diverse, and where some of the bosses come from whatever minority you are. That way, it helps to have people who understand what you’re thinking and feeling, and are sensitive to your experiences. But other than that, just know your shit inside and out. Because if you’re the only person who can answer questions well, then they will have to look at you, have to listen to you.
Rajvi: You’ve talked about being in junior positions, but you’ve also made it to managerial positions. So, as people who have managed teams, and have the power to help people, how do you handle situations when someone comes to you with a problem, like they’re being dismissed within a team?
Rupa: So, when I manage teams, I see this happening to women, but also to anyone against whom there are biases. So whenever we’re in a team meeting, I ensure I walk away from any biases even I might have, and make sure I give that person a chance to speak, a chance to contribute. For women in a meeting, there is this assumption that women may not know things, or they may not have an aggressive enough viewpoint or be willing to go against the consensus. These are biases a manager has to step away from, to allow people to have their voice. Anytime I’m in a group where someone is not going to be as vocal, I do ask them to voice their opinions, to encourage them to challenge people who are more vocal. Essentially, pass the mic to someone. As a manager, you always know who has important things to say but are just not telling me. And one thing that’s important to remember is not to try to emulate the most vocal or more aggressive person in the room, to be comfortable and confident in your own skin. Even if you don’t have ten things to say in a meeting, but have one important thing to chime in with, good managers will notice it. It carries a lot of weight for people who have been in hundreds of those meetings before.
Karla: And you’re also more capable of identifying those people when you’ve gone through the same thing. And give those people an opportunity to speak.
Rajvi: I also want to touch upon sexual microaggressions, which can be sexist, but may not attack your competence, but instead simply your existence as a woman. What have those looked like in your careers?
Karla: I worked in environments that had a boys’ club feel. Especially in my start-up experience, where senior management was all men and things were laxer than in a staid corporate environment. This may sound controversial, but those didn’t bother me. They’d sound something like, “Let’s send Karla to that meeting because the client likes young women.” But they weren’t said with disrespect, or to negate what I would bring to a meeting substantively. They always felt like a commentary on what that sleazy client is like, not me. And so I never felt like I was being taken less seriously. The times that made me feel undermined were the other types of microaggressions that aren’t defined as sexual harassment per se.
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Rupa: I had the same thing, colleagues would be like “why doesn’t Rupa go see this person, she’ll change their mind.” The ones where I wasn’t taken seriously were the times that bothered me a lot more, but I think one evolution I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve worked is the acceptance or willingness to let comments like that fly about anyone has reduced and that’s a good thing. Just the fact that people are a lot more conscious about what they say, that’s a good thing.
Rajvi: But what if a woman today doesn’t want to accept a culture like that? How could she go about it? You know, in pop culture, there’s this trope of a woman who can give it back, like she’s risking a comfortable relationship with a colleague for a more combative one. I was wondering if that’s actually possible to do in reality?
Karla: Again, I feel that’s a personality thing. And it also takes some level of seniority in an organization to be allowed to behave that way, with impunity. I would say it’s probably better for everybody if we don’t aspire to be that, and actually aspire to rein in some of the behavior that makes everybody else feel uncomfortable. But, of course, we need to draw a line between microaggressions that would be totally inappropriate to speak out in the middle of a meeting, and when there’ somebody engaging in predatory behavior, going after junior women in the office. In that instance, speaking up and speaking out is important, finding a female manager who can help you walk through the POSH reporting process, to have some managerial or leadership support. To make a complaint, and see it through the process is really important.
Rajvi: But speaking up and speaking out is also not so cut and dry. Often, people who speak up are let go a few months later for mysterious reasons or are deemed dangerous to work with, as happened with several women in corporate environments after #MeToo. If these are real consequences for speaking out, then what can they do?
Karla: I don’t have a great answer for you. A lot of times corporate structures make it difficult to report the person who is harassing you, and sometimes your boss is on the POSH committee. Let’s not underplay the blowback, the consequences can be severe. It’s not easy, and every person needs to individually weigh it. But the more people stand up and say something, we can try to create a culture in which there are consequences for the harasser, and not just for the accuser of the harasser. It’s how more people will be incentivized to keep people in check.
Rajvi: So, in the end, what’s the ideal scenario, both from an employee and employer perspective?
Rupa: I’d say for somebody who is starting out in their career, be conscious when you’re choosing a place of work. Be conscious of whether or not you respect the people you work with, and you see them embody values you care about. To me, there’s a lot of crossover between how someone appears in an interview and how they run their business. When you meet someone senior in an interview setting and you feel they’re disrespecting you, know that there isn’t going to be this huge divide between how they act personally and how they handle their team. People should make decisions based on that, even the job sounds great. The job will ultimately not end up being great if you ignore your instincts. That’s where you have a choice, where you have agency. And then, as people get senior, to hire for integrity and kindness than any particular words you want on a CV will end up being better for your business. The same bar you have for friends you let into your personal life, to an extent should be the same bar you have for people you work with.