Creating inclusive workplaces: your guide to tackling microaggressions

“Your English is very good”;  “Where are you really from?”; “You come across as very strong for a woman!”

As an Indian-American woman working in Singapore, I have had my share of experiences where I receive comments such as the above, from fellow coworkers and friends. 

These comments are a form of microaggression and unfortunately they are far more common than we realise. Most of the time, the person making the comment does not even realise it.

Yet women who experience microaggressions often struggle to feel psychologically safe. They resort to ‘self-shielding’ by muting their voices, code-switching, or concealing essential aspects of themselves. The resulting stress runs deep, as they are four times more likely to almost always feel burned out and three times more likely to contemplate leaving their companies.

Research from Lean In highlights that women are more likely to experience microaggressions than men. Women are also twice as likely to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state. 

For women belonging to traditionally marginalised groups, these instances occur with even greater frequency and carry perhaps an even more profound sense of degradation. Oftentimes, the workplace becomes a psychological battleground for these  women. 

All of this evidence we expand on when working with high-potential women in our Women in Leadership programmes.

In this article, I’d like to help our audiences recognise microaggressions, understand their implications and feel better equipped to address them effectively. 

Recognising microaggressions

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist at Columbia University, microaggressions are slight snubs or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages. 

They often stem from age-old stereotypes that we have acquired over time which we use to judge people unconsciously. 

“Microaggressions are easy to miss when they aren’t directed towards you. However, when you’re the recipient, the message is received loud and clear.”

So for example, “who is taking care of your kids when you’re travelling?” could signal the underlying assumption that a woman typically takes care of kids. This in turn has a greater impact on the individual, who may fear being seen as a bad mother when prioritising work over family. 

Critics say we’re overly sensitive these days, making a big deal out of small comments. Taken individually, these incidents may not seem a big deal at all.

Yet, research shows that the combined impact of microaggressions can significantly affect your mental and physical health and overall well-being.  This can lead to depression, prolonged stress, physical issues like headaches and high blood pressure, and trouble sleeping, especially throughout a career. Microaggressions can also harm job satisfaction and increase burnout. Recovering from them takes a lot of mental and emotional energy.

Fundamentally, microaggressions are not so micro: they undermine a culture of inclusion. They have a big impact and should be taken seriously by those who care about fostering an inclusive and conducive culture where everyone feels at their best. And it really does take all of us.

The more you increase your awareness of microaggressions, the more you will notice they are happening and wonder how to respond to them. 

So, the next question is: How can you, as individual colleagues, victims or witnesses of microaggressions, best address them in a non-confrontational and safe way when we encounter or experience them? 

Responding to microaggressions

Here are some effective ways to address microaggressions.

Approach

First, consider timing carefully and whether it is best to react immediately or address it later. You want to find a suitable time and place to check in with the person whom you heard the comment from.

Nobody enjoys feeling called out, especially in Asia. So in most cases, if you need to address someone, you would consider ‘calling them in’ instead. That is about creating a safe space for a one-on-one conversation without clients or colleagues present. 

“Hey Jacob, are you available to discuss the meeting we just had?”

Yet in certain situations, addressing microaggressions in the moment can be effective. For instance, if someone accidentally uses gendered language like ‘guys’ in a mixed-gender group, a leader can casually say, ‘Let’s be inclusive here, addressing everyone.’ This approach normalises acknowledging microaggressions and fosters a culture of immediate correction.

Listen

Next, you want to keep to the facts and objectively state what you have observed. You could also ask follow-up questions. When doing so, you want to be withholding judgement. 

I think you said I am very strong for a Woman, is that correct?” 

Or you can also ask them to expand and clarify their comment: 

“I heard you say to Jane that she looked too young to be a leader. Tell me more. What did you mean by that?”

Give feedback

Once you’ve gained a clear understanding from their perspective, you want to explain the impact the microaggression had. Whilst having this discussion, it’s helpful to keep in mind the difference between intent and impact. Often there is no intent to be offensive but the person is unaware of the impact of their actions and words. 

“You may not realise this, but your comment may have embarrassed Jane in front of the team.  Your comment could imply that people below a certain age group may not be effective leaders within the organisations.”

“Furthermore, it could signal to her that she has to be of a certain age to be an effective leader to contribute to the team and fit in here.”

Encourage

Lastly, you want to encourage them to take ownership and resolve the situation. Being proactive in providing recommendations and solutions goes a long way to support people as they learn more inclusive behaviours.

“I know you want to get the best input, would you be open to some feedback? I recommend when starting the meeting, that you emphasise the importance of diversity within the team and that we all have an equal role to play.” 

Ultimately, addressing microaggressions and being mindful of our everyday language, is a journey that has a significant impact on our mental well-being in the workplace. 

Microaggressions impact us all, so fostering more inclusive and culturally aware workplace environments requires each of us to examine our own biases and become conscious of them. Bringing people into these challenging conversations is difficult especially if they are people whom we care about. The aim isn’t to fear saying something wrong but to welcome the chance to be more intentional at it and to create a space where open, respectful dialogue thrives.

Equipping women with the tools and skills to navigate the unique challenges they face at the workplace, such as microaggressions and biases, is a key component of our Women In Leadership program.

Embracing the opportunity to get better at it

Ultimately, becoming more skilled at spotting and addressing microaggressions and being mindful of our everyday language, is a journey that has a significant impact on our mental well-being in the workplace. Microaggressions impact us all, so fostering more inclusive and culturally aware workplace environments requires each of us to examine our own biases and become conscious of them. Bringing people into these challenging conversations is difficult especially if they are people whom we care about. The aim isn’t to fear saying something wrong but to welcome the chance to be more intentional at it, and to create a space where open, respectful dialogue thrives.