Microaggressions 101

13 Feb 2015

Since the discussion around diversity in tech has picked up over the past few years, you may have begun hearing the word microaggression thrown around. But what does microaggression mean? Here is the Wikipedia definition:

Microaggression is a form of unintended discrimination. It is depicted by the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination. Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined the wordmicroaggression in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he said he had regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on black people. In 1973, MIT economist Mary Rowe extended the term to include similar aggressions directed at women; eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as poor people, disabled people and sexual minorities

In layman’s terms, a microaggression is a statement that is made by someone that is not intended to be an attack or a put down, but reinforces negative stereotypes about a person or group of people. Perpetrators usually think themselves to be unprejudiced. When people from minority groups are continually subjected to these types of statements, over time it can cause depression and lowered self-esteem, among other things.

In order to better explain what a microaggression is, I’ve gathered this example quote from a local community tech mailing list.

On Thursday, Feb 12, 2015 at 10:30 AM, <REDACTED>, wrote:

I've seen tech companies in Portland bend over backwards to diversify, even to the point of breaking anti-discrimination laws and lowering their own hiring standards in order to avoid hiring white males.

This statement is unacceptable in a shared community space as much as it is factually incorrect.

Looking at the diversity statistics for companies in Portland, one can see no appreciable difference from the diversity statistics reported for tech companies in the Bay Area and beyond. Data to this effect was reported by Janice Levenhagen-Seeley during her talk on Why Women Leave Tech. Therefore, tech companies here in Portland are not hiring more minorities than other cities. Companies are certainly not breaking anti-discrimination laws. The reasoning around why stating in hiring documents that women and minorities are actively being recruited does not constitute discrimination is well described in this article on the topic in the field of law by an Oracle general counsel here.

Additionally, the statement that companies that are avoiding hiring white males are ‘lowering their own hiring standards’ is offensive and is an example of speech that breaks many common Codes of Conduct.

Harassment includes: harmful or prejudicial verbal or written comments related to gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or disability.

Statements such as these can have a wider-ranging effect than one might think. Many people might think this is an offhand, unintentional comment. The people being affected by these statements are real and their feelings are real. There are many people in the world who are not white males. It hurts to hear statements like these. To hear that others think of you as less qualified, and that your being hired into a team might be unwanted. When being exposed to comments like this, if even one person thinks to themselves that they might not deserve their position at their company, that they were hired just to tick a box, that they aren’t ever good enough to be a ‘real programmer’, then the person making the statement has done a disservice to the tech community.

If people think that the tech community doesn’t have problems discriminating against people that aren’t white males, then please think long and hard about why you think this. Clearly there are still many people who don’t want to have this discussion. Think that we are already doing enough for these uppity women and brown people.

The fact of the matter is that women developers are still constantly mistaken for secretaries. And women of color have it even worse — they report being mistaken for janitors! Compare this to actual interactions I’ve seen in local coffee shops where random guys in hoodies are asked if they are programmers.

Guys, you run the risk of being accidentally mistaken for programmers. Women are regularly mistaken for secretaries and janitors at their own workplace. Not to mention the myriad of other more serious discrimination issues experienced by many women and minorities during their careers, including and not limited to hiring discrimination, difficulty in career advancement, discrimination due to pregnancy, sexual harassment, and online death threats, just to name a few.

Staying silent as others continue to reinforce negative stereotypes about minorities in tech leads to an appearance of implicit support. I will not allow others to believe that this is not a problem here in our community, and I challenge others to speak up when they witness microaggressions.

None of us are immune to this, as these behaviors creep in due to long-standing societal biases. I am not naive enough to think that I have not accidentally taken part in the microaggression of others. I want my friends and colleagues to feel comfortable enough to tell me ‘Hey, did you really mean to say that’ if I say something inappropriate. I hope others feel the same way. Calling out this behavior as we see it and being willing to modify our own behaviors is the only way to end this type of activity in our community.