Handling Microaggressions & Bullying

One of the most common yet least reported forms of gender based violence millions of women experience at work is psychological violence which may or may not include sexual harassment but which largely involves women being forced to work in an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment. Micro aggressions, a prime example of this form of GBV are an all too frequent reality at workplace and can negatively impact a women’s career progress.


While macroaggression occurs on a systemic level and can be obvious, micro aggressions also referred to as death by a thousand cuts are everyday slights and invalidations that women and other marginalized groups regularly experience in day-to-day interactions. These casual degrades often go unacknowledged and may include sexual objectification, the use of sexist language and humour, interruptions, invasion of personal space, dismissal of ideas,  snide remarks or other derogatory digs.


Women also often experience what is called benevolent sexism- believing or acting as if women are weak and need the protection of men. Hostile sexism is easy to spot: angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards women but benevolent sexism is apparently positive and seemingly un-harmful - women are often tempted to brush this experience off as an overreaction or a misunderstanding of benign intent but in reality such behaviour can be insidiously dangerous, the perpetrator aims to assault the dignity, competence, and self-worth of the target often leaving the target feeling responsible, sabotaged, undermined and confused. Unconscious bias & ignorance are cited as the two most common causes of such behaviour. And although these subtle and unintentional "slips of the tongue" may not seem a big enough deal and (perhaps one incident in isolation may not be) in reality, regular and frequent put downs and demeaning comments chip away at the confidence level of the victims preventing them from performing optimally.



Here is what you can do, if you are at the receiving end:



1.       Identify the Behaviour:


Psychological violence can be either a ‘one-off’ or a series of incidents and may have immediate implications on the health and well-being of the recipient. Determining whether or not a comment or action directed towards you is inappropriate is often subjective, but if you feel upset and uncomfortable as a result, then it’s very likely to be. The very first thing you need to if you feel you are the victim is to identify that it’s happening. Once you say what it is, you are opening yourself to different possibilities of handling it.


2.       Take Charge Of Your Emotions


If you are being targeted, it’s important to know that it’s not your fault, and it has nothing to do with your actions or who you are as a person. Take control of your emotions and detach yourself from the abuse. You did not incur this on yourself, nor do you deserve it. Also, you are not alone. Many studies evidence that more than half of the women say they have been harassed at work and most admit to not reporting it. I do advise choosing battles wisely so you could either chose to ignore or respond depending on how much time and energy you are willing to invest in it. However, If the behaviour is repetitive; impacts your mental health; involves someone you work with closely and affects how you will be perceived at work or otherwise then ignoring or avoiding the abuser though seemingly safe, will actually be more harmful. Appeasing the abuser or complying is no solution either. Bullying or harassment is a power struggle. Once you give into one demand, they will push for more. If you do chose to respond, you could either do so immediately or could wait it out until you are in more control of your feelings.


3.       Start Preparing your Case. 


Before moving forward, take steps to reverse any health triggers that may have arisen owing to this -protecting your own mental health should be a priority.  Next, prepare a file that documents all bullying/harassment incidents you have been exposed to, substantiated with facts, and keep it handy for future reference including times, dates, and people that witnessed the events.




4.       Confront and Set Boundaries.


Before resorting to other measures, directly confront the perpetrator. If personal space if being invaded, place a physical boundary (like a desk) between you and them, or ask them to step back. If emotional space is being threatened, such as asking personal questions or offering unwarranted advice, tell them to stop, politely yet firmly. Bullies sense fear and prey on weakness. Show them up front that you are strong and they will usually back down. Your body language is crucial. To show assertiveness, stand up straight, don’t fidget, use a calm and collected tone and maintain eye contact. Ensure that you’re not physically cornered. A statement like, “Get your hands off,” is firm, assertive rather than aggressive, and non-negotiable. You can start off by stating what you saw and heard without making a judgment, next share your reaction and feelings on the matter using a range of adjectives such as unsupported, upset, angry, etc. Finally, disclose what you need or want from the other person to resolve the issue. Example:  ‘’When you continuously interrupt me, I don’t want to contribute in the meeting anymore. I feel disrespected. I would like you to let me finish what I am saying.’’



5.       Build a support network/ allies.


Focus on the people who trust you and don’t be discouraged by any unfounded accusations and mud-slinging by the bully. Establish a reliable set of supporters who can back your confrontation against the bullies when the need be. These peers or allies can also stand up for you for you when you're interrupted, spoken over, undermined, or otherwise discriminated against due to your gender.



6.       Take action.


If the bully remains undeterred or if you feel that there is serious risk in confronting the latter (such as being physically harmed or losing your job) then prepare for the next action. This could involve filing an internal complaint with your Manager who will typically give you their opinion about the claim and discuss the options you have.  Be prepared with your file of documented facts to defend your case. American psychologists Gary and Ruth recommend another approach, which suggests building a business case showing the financial impact of the bullying and presenting it to the executive team. ‘Speak their language,’ and you might be surprised at the results that you get. This approach is fact-based and stands a lesser chance of being discounted or discredited. If your Manager sides with the bully owing to personal friendship or rationalizes the mistreatment, you may have to consider involving HR/ D&I representatives or other higher ups. And, if those don’t help either, you can pursue other legal actions or consider a change of environment.



If you are successful, then don’t just leave it there. Endeavour to bring reforms in your workplace. Most people can be apathetic bystanders when witnessing someone else is being bullied. Avoid being one of them. Moreover, support creation, implementation and enforcement of anti-micro aggression policies. Elicit top Management support and create awareness around do’s and don’ts. Encourage consistency in reinforcing these rules — bullies will often back down if they know they will be held accountable.

Hira Ali

Originally published in Forbes