I mentioned this article in my first featured post, but I would like to retreat back to Amy Cuddy’s TedTalk on “Your body language may shape who you are.” If you have not seen this video, I would highly recommend you watch it. It is inspiring, informative, and relatable to most anyone. The main takeaway I would like to discuss is the topic of subtleties and the energy of non-verbal communication. Similar to “you are what you eat,” we can twist this into “you are how you sit” and “you are how you speak” and “you are what you don’t say.” My 6th-grade multimedia teacher once said that 80% of your language is non-verbal. His wife yelled at him once because his arms were crossed at a party — he apparently felt like he had to relay the message to his 6th grade photoshop class.
Now I would like to drop another bomb from the media and our current in-the-news issues. We hear a lot about racism, feminism, and social movements overall such as the #MeToo movement that supports and empowers victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment. As with the recent accusations and A-list celebrities under fire regarding the #MeToo movement, a lot of people, mostly men, are in an era of fear, especially in the workplace. In this fear, people are quick to jump in to say “I’m not racist” or “I would never do that” and “I am not sexist.” It’s almost as if saying it out loud protects you from accusations. If you verbally champion yourself, it must be true and people must believe it. I am fairly positive the people proclaiming it also sincerely and blissfully believe it about themselves. When it comes to most men or women in the workplace, everyone tries and believes that how they act and how they treat people is without bias and their intent is pure. Overall, we must assume that human beings have good intentions or our hope would be small and sad. Even I like to think that I am excused from biased behavior, but in the long run, I am positive I have said or acted in a way that is offensive or stand-offish to someone of the opposite sex.
In summary, a majority of people believe that perpetrators of #MeToo are only those that deliberately or forcefully grab a piece of the passing secretary, or claim that as soon as a female professional has a child, she has doomed herself. There may be a perception that #MeToo refers directly to slut-shaming or making an inappropriate joke. The point is that #MeToo, feminism, racism, social justice, are about so much more than overtly making racists statements or unwanted actions. They are about awareness and fighting the systemic injustices of a society that has not set up women or ethnic minorities for success. And it can even be boiled down to how you sit in your chair.
“So you are saying that I can fight systemic injustices by…. sitting in my chair?” YES. That is exactly what I am saying. Or more accurately, you can fight systemic injustices by sitting correctly in your chair. Please continue reading as we will delve into the topic of microaggressions: Proper Posture 101.
The inspiration for this occurred when I was in a meeting talking about talent strategy. It was a Tuesday. It was myself and a few other male employees. As the HR professional in a room of technical talent, I was steering the meeting around recruiting strategy. I also want to add that these people in the room were 30+, male, and most importantly, friends of mine. Additionally, I am a female, blonde, and 22. So you have enough information to paint a pretty holistic picture of the environment and what the context was. As I was speaking, I noticed an energy in the room. I looked around me, and there was a common and almost comical, identical posture from my audience members. It looked like this:
I then realized that I was sub-consciously reading this energy emanating from posture, of men that were almost double my age, sitting in “power poses” without even meaning to. And with respect to them, they most likely were engaged in the conversation, but I could feel myself pulling, reaching, and clawing to prove myself and to move the conversation back to them for their validation or response. I realized it was because this microaggression of posture was occurring, and they didn’t realize the stimulus that it had on my all-too-acute awareness of my gender, status, age, and progression in comparison to theirs. After the meeting, I started to think… why is it only men that sit like this? Does this happen when a male is leading meetings? What if that man were to be their boss? What if it wasn’t their boss? I can’t be sure they would compose themselves in the same way. I needed a control group. I also considered that I’M the one being biased… shouldn’t I be thinking about the flip side? What if women were in front of me, would I notice or be attuned to their posture as well? Am I being hypersensitive? However, as I researched a bit more, I concluded that women do not commonly sit as above. In fact, you can observe yourself just how awkward this looks on the flip side:
As you can see, these poses do not look as familiar on women, and it is because they just don’t sit in these relaxed, yet authoritative poses as often as men do. And in retrospect, I sincerely do not think that men intentionally sit as above to prove a point, or to play in a power game. It really is because their bodies read the stimulus of the environment, and begin to relax in a way that they wouldn’t normally sit if their audience is someone who is in a more powerful position. However, this is one of those tiny, little, almost annoying things we, again, like to call microaggressions. If you haven’t been able to connect the definition of microaggression to the poses above, here is a holistic definition that may help: “Microaggression: a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group” (1). This term is more commonly used in a racial context, but as I feel completely non-credible to speak on that topic, so we are using the term microaggression in regards to gender.
Here are more examples of gender microaggressions in the workplace, that as a woman, you most likely have experienced, and as a male, you may start to recognize in yourself or in others around you:
Authoritative posture in meetings (power poses)
Are you taking notes?
As if this is the 60’s and all of the women in any office are secretaries, it can be assumed that the woman in a meeting is going to be the one to take notes and send out follow-ups. Or, in general, assuming that women will be doing the administrative tasks. Specifically and individually asking a female in a meeting of multiple other male attendees to do this is a subtle microaggression. It should not be assumed that women like to take notes or are more capable of doing it.
In addition, before delegating or assigning work, be conscious of the type of work and why you are giving it to that person. For example, event planning, administration, welcoming/onboarding, etc. are subconsciously viewed as more feminine or female-oriented tasks.
“Calm down” and “high strung”
There is a pervasive perception that women are more emotional than men, especially in the workplace. With this perception, comes along the view that we also are unable to control those emotions or are ruled by our feelings. This stems from a misbelief about women’s “hormones,” our feminine or motherly nature, and general emotional capacity. (Obvious side note: please do not ask women in the workplace when they are planning on having children, or assume that they do have children).
A few of my least favorite verbal, gender microaggressions are the phrases said to a female when she is stressed, passionate, or showing her emotions. Phrases such as “calm down” or “you seem a little high strung.” It is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to reach out in a supportive and concerned manner, however, I rarely have seen a man tell another man that he seems “high strung” or to “calm down a bit.” People are more attuned to and expect women to show their emotions more, and may like to share their opinions about those emotions.
As a less-relevant side-comment, another verbal microaggression to be aware of is telling a woman “you look tired” when she is simply not wearing makeup. She could be tired, or she could just not have put mascara on, but either way, she knows how she is feeling or looks, and there is not a need to remind her. I know I personally receive quite often when I don’t want to put makeup on that day. And as a societal complaint, we shouldn’t be expected to spend an extra hour before work to look pretty if we are only doing it because it is expected or to make others comfortable. For those that do put a lot of appearance labor in to get ready for the day — you go queen(s).
Mansplaining is a newer phrase that sprung into the media and pop-culture as of a few years ago. Here is the definition per Wikipedia, who can explain better than myself:
“To comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner. In its original use, mansplaining differed from other forms of condescension in that it is rooted in the sexist assumption that a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman. However, it has come to be used more broadly, often applied when a man takes a condescending tone in an explanation to anyone, regardless of the age or gender of the intended recipients: a ‘man ‘splaining” can be delivered to any audience. In 2010 it was named by the New York Times as one of its ‘Words of the Year'” (2).
In the workplace, it is best exemplified by a male explaining something to a female that she has more knowledge or credibility in. For example, if a male accountant were to explain the definition of “pipelining talent” to me (myself as an HR professional).
This is self-explanatory. I believe that most women in the workplace have been interrupted in a meeting at some point in their lives.
When typing emails or notes to authority figures or men, I notice myself re-reading my messages and deleting words such as “I think,” “I believe,” and “maybe.” This is again, because of my all-too-acute awareness of the perception that my age, function, and gender can have on that specific audience — a subtlety of vulnerability/weakness. Although this is not specifically a microaggression, it is a distinct privilege of power to not have to delete those words from a message. It isn’t always about what you say, it is about what you don’t have to say or think about.
The list above is not meant to be comprehensive or to attack anyone of any certain gender. However, regarding these more sensitive topics, sometimes the best approach is to be as specific as possible and to look at it head-on. Words, actions, behaviors, and even energies have power, and it is the importance of impact, not just intent, that matters.
I want to clarify, that the people I work with are truly amazing, and the examples and topics given above are general observations of any woman in a corporate environment or any workplace. The gender conversation is not going away, and the more awareness, the more discussion that takes place, the better. These discussions should also not be limited to gender. We should constantly be discussing inequalities of race/ethnic diversity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and how to combat our subconscious biases.
So what can you do to help fight inequalities, microaggressions, and injustices?
- Be aware and be observant
- Seek to understand, ask questions, and open up discussions with people of the opposite gender and race (in a non-racist/sexist manner)
- Work on yourself first, change requires action
- Be an ally to those around you. Nothing changes without the partnership of those in power and those without or with less power.
- Always, always, always, practice empathy
Lastly, and most importantly, remember to behave as if your boss is in the room. Sit in your chair.
For additional reading, Forbes has a great article on microaggressions: https://www.forbes.com/sites/marlenahartz/2017/07/24/4-ways-men-can-stop-microaggressions-in-the-workplace/#200745835d91