Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions in the workplace: the uncomfortable sensation women and other equity-seeking groups experience all too often

“Your name is really hard to pronounce; can I just call you Jay?”

“Wow Miss, you’re the Manager? I just assumed you were the receptionist!” “Where are you from? … No, I mean where are you really from?” “When an engineer does something, he should remember…”

A microaggression is an action or verbal message that intentionally – or more often – unintentionally conveys a stereotype, negative trait, or general insensitivity associated with someone’s race, gender, identity, sexual orientation, language abilities or other identity markers. It is a subtle jab that reminds someone that they are the “other” in some way. The more often microaggressions are heard, the bigger the impact they will have on a person’s well-being. For members of underrepresented groups, microaggressions can be a daily experience, forcing them to question whether they belong and creating anxiety about how others perceive them.

Maybe you’re a queer man, and someone just asked you about your girlfriend – you think at first, this is harmless, they’re just trying to get to know something about my life. But then you’re put in the awkward situation of either coming out of the closet on a Tuesday afternoon to Bob (the kind-hearted Financial Analyst from the third floor that you’ve met a few times), or, you’re forced to lie about who you are. Maybe you don’t mind once or twice, but after a while, it becomes exhausting.

Members of OSPE’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee shared some of their experiences:

“After years of shock when I mentioned I was in school for engineering, I felt like I had to wear my iron ring to prove myself. As a young Black woman, I did not fit the model of what people expected of an engineer. These microaggressions can lead to people making changes in their lifestyle to fit in like changing their attire, hobbies, habits and more.”

“You’re in engineering? But, you’re a girl!”

“Are you sure you want to take on this additional volunteer commitment? Your husband might divorce you and your kids might not recognize you because you won’t be home very much.”

Although not unique to engineering workplaces, acknowledging and addressing these behaviours is a step in the right direction to achieving a more diverse engineering profession. What should you do to avoid committing a microaggression?


  1. Challenge your assumptions – the core essence of microaggressions stem from poorly held assumptions. That is, assuming someone falls into your definition of “normal”, or assuming that you know anything about a person’s identity without giving them an opportunity to tell you.
  2. Be conscious of personal comments in a workplace environment – remember that work is already challenging, and adding layers of discomfort will inevitably drive people away. When making office small talk with people you don’t know very well, be extra conscious of broaching personal subject matters. When in doubt, lead with a story to take the pressure off the other person. If they’re comfortable with you, they’ll share one in return.
  3. Reflect on what you may have already said and change your behaviour – if any of this sounds like something you’ve done in the past, it’s not too late to change. You can be conscious of your language and actions moving forward, and you can even reach out to someone to apologize for what you’ve done or said in the past. Just be sure not to make a big deal out of your apology – it’s more important that the other person feels comfortable than you feeling gratitude for acknowledging your mistakes.


  1. Call in, don’t call out – if you’re well versed on microaggressions and can point them out at a mile away, you unfortunately may not be in the majority in this case either. Yelling at someone or trying to embarrass them in front of a group of people is simply fighting fire with fire, and you’re unlikely to get the end result you’re after. If you’re up for the emotional labour, you can try speaking to someone one-on-one, and try to get them to recognize their mistake. You can recommend that your HR department run a campaign on microaggressions or send them a link to a video or blog post on the subject. Some people are a lost cause on these matters, but others genuinely mean you no harm and will alter their behaviour immediately.
  2. Reach out to a trusted ally for help – you don’t always have to do all the work yourself. Good allies will be willing and able to help you communicate your issues to others. Whether it’s a peer or a superior who you trust to stand up for you, reaching out to them is always worthwhile. Sometimes, people need to hear the same message from multiple perspectives for it to really sink in.
  3. Find the people who put you at ease – microaggressions will not be solved overnight, and you won’t have the energy to deal with every issue that comes up on a daily basis. Instead of simply getting “a thick skin” or “learning to deal with the fact that life is tough”, find people who you relate to and who you can connect with. If you’re able to be honest about your struggles in a space you feel comfortable in, it will help you manage the tougher times that are out of your control. Community is a powerful weapon against hardship.

Engineering is a profession that caters to the entirety of society, and our workplace diversity should adequately reflect the communities we are serving. The more comfortable we can make one another feel, the more likely we’ll be able to work together to solve problems, which is the one thing all engineers – no matter their background – will always have in common.

Microaggressions are only one example of the many barriers impacting the outcomes of equity-seeking groups in STEM sectors of the economy.

OSPE will be discussing this, and other key issues at:

The EDI Imperative: Changing the Profile of STEAM in Canada

  • Location: Shaw Centre, 55 Colonel Drive in Ottawa, Ontario
  • Date: November 6, 2019
  • Time: 8:30 am – 5:00 pm

The conference, presented by OSPE’s EDI Committee, will bring together professionals, thought leaders, academics, elected officials, and government departments to discuss the importance of creating inclusive workplaces. EDI in Canada’s STEM sector is vital – the moral and business case has been made. If we don’t work together to remove barriers to full inclusion, our businesses, educational institutions, and society will miss out on innovative ideas, perspectives and attitudes that can help shape our nation’s future.

It is time to recognize that more needs to be done to ensure EDI becomes a reality, not only by sharing insights on the challenges that persist, but by defining solutions to address them. This event is not just about creating a conversation, it’s about fostering a movement.

For more information, visit www.ospeedi.ca.


This article was written by OSPE member Vanessa Raponi on behalf of OSPE’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee.

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