The drip, drip, drip of the microaggresion

At a conference this week I was standing with my two colleagues; one male, one female (company founder). We were chatting to someone at a stand about their product. A few minutes in and the sales director turns up and stands next to me (too close). His colleague stops to introduce our company founder, Elina, who he had been chatting to. She introduces me first and then my male colleague, Will. The sales director, despite standing next to me (too close), and me being introduced first, shakes Will’s hand first. He does this by launching across my personal space, brushing my shoulder (I’m short). He then turns back to me and offers his hand. He didn’t shake Will’s hand first on purpose; he made an unconscious assumption that tall man was more important than short woman. In truth, I was much more useful to him in any discussion about whether my company would buy his product; I’d be the one taking the decision. He couldn’t have known this – he simply acted on the information in front of him and his internal bias. A bias shared by most of us.

I was a little annoyed at this point. This annoyance coupled with my already strong handshake (don’t you have a manly handshake, for a girl? is something I hear a lot), meant that when I shook his hand, he winced. “That’s a strong handshake,”  he said.

And then I looked around the room. Even in an industry where thought and intellect are valued, the picture I see is this:

  • More men than women at one of the biggest annual conferences, in what is a women dominated industry.

  • Women still dressed to accentuate femininity; in tight dresses, make-up and uncomfortable heels. Men doing talks in jeans and t shirts.

  • Women still stumbling over mistakes in a presentation, apologising. Men doing the same, and just carrying on.

Even here; inequality is still a problem. We are still conditioned to look and behave a certain way.

This is nothing compared to the issues faced by women in other places, and of other marginalised groups, but it is still something.

I have been challenged by people for my ‘aggressive’ reaction to microaggressions. I have been told that I am fighting the wrong battles; that this doesn’t really matter; that it is just banter. I do not deny that examples like this, taken on their own, are minor.

But here is the thing; they are not on their own. To me each one represents years and years of tiny little signs and signals that I, as a woman, am of less value than a man.

To the world I am one of the luckiest and least affected of an oppressed majority. But I am still part of it. And I can still talk about microaggressions. Yes, they are micro. Yes, they are usually not outright aggressive. Yes, they are often not intentional or conscious. But it is this insidious nature that makes them such an issue.

One example, one woman, yet still representative of years and years of acceptance that the world was built by men, for men. This doesn’t mean I hate men; I love humans and I love equality. And the disrupted power balance hurts men and women alike. For every woman who is frustrated that people don’t believe she can build a bike from scratch, there is a man who wishes people wouldn’t assume he can fix theirs; there is a confident woman called aggressive, and a shy man called weak.

So, as a human who has a voice, I will call the little incidents out.  Maybe lots of us doing the same will slowly trickle back up the chain, back to those who don’t have a voice.

And I’ll keep my ‘manly’ handshake, thanks.

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