South Africa

Women at Work: An annotated list of seven micro-agressions all women can relate to

By Ayesha Fakie 6 August 2017

There’s irony in a day marked to honour women who fought against oppression being increasingly replaced by a collective gender micro-agression in the shape of unbridled consumerism. By AYESHA FAKIE.

Every year when August rolls round my eyebrow raises ever so slightly, waiting for the new depths of conspicuous consumption with the Hallmark-ification of Women’s Day.

There’s irony in a day marked to honour women who fought against oppression being increasingly replaced by a collective gender microagression in the shape of unbridled consumerism. And portrayed to us via marketing that only considers one form of feminine beauty and standards as an ideal.

All it does is make me think back on gendered micro-aggressions I’ve experienced. Especially at work.

Now, no workplace is perfect. I’ve been around the block enough times to know that. And my current employer is not perfect either; we’re a microcosm of South Africa after all. But we do live our values, and we try very hard to improve if we fail – the fact that I can write this piece under its banner itself says something. This is refreshing to me because at a few previous employers I got a crash course in how to behave as a woman at work, tackling various forms of minimisation and sexism that made me feel so small.

At times I think every woman should be given a guidebook, a manual when she starts working, whether as a cleaner or CEO. Something we pass down matrilineal generations until sexism and misogyny as weapons of patriarchal nonsense are no more.

So here’s my annotated list of micro-agressions experienced in former lives, as a humble contribution.

  • I said something in a meeting once and someone responded, “Oh my, that’s a great idea. Did you just Google that!?” Despite the implication that I can’t produce original ideas, I learnt a lesson: that we need to own our place and calmly assert that, yes, women at work generally make the whole place smarter. And a supremely competent woman is something many (men and women) are not ready for. Many people face the challenge of owning their valuable contributions. We have to stand in our shoes and say “yes, we did that, thank you”. We’re socialised to not be arrogant or brag. This isn’t that. It’s asserting our skills and knowledge.
  • After a promotion I checked to see if my pay was equal to men on the same level (I’d heard of a discrepancy) and got, “But why do you even need more money, you don’t have kids and you’re not even married!?” We know the wage gap exists but to have it laid out for you like that was another thing entirely. I took a deep breath and explained that equal work deserves equal pay, all the while thinking “how is this even happening?” I learnt that I needed to operate on various levels, often watching me from outside myself, to remain calm. If I showed any emotion, that would also be a problem, right?
  • When I took a leadership role following my predecessor’s abrupt departure there was gossip about how I would “stuff it up and sink the office” (that’s the PG version). The part that grates, even now, is that people of various hues, genders and ethnicities happily participated. I was deflated, I felt adrift. But then I realised a lesson I keep to this day: “What other people say about me is not my business.” I asked colleagues who supported me to not share malicious gossip with me. Honest, direct critical feedback, yeah let’s do it. But this kind of stuff is the type we don’t need to hear. Sometimes psychic armour is best.
  • That time when, as a meeting is about to start, men, especially older ones, expect you to pour them a cup of tea of coffee. Never was my bum planted as firmly on my chair on that day and all other days. My word of advice to women, especially coloured, Indian and black women: don’t ever do it if your workplace has a negative gender culture. No matter how easy it is, no matter how much “it’s just a small thing, I don’t mind”, no matter how well we’ve been socialised to serve. Just. Don’t. We face enough challenges in the workplace as women of colour; don’t allow people to put us in yet another subservient box. I know there are offices where this isn’t a problem, where “women’s work” is actually done by all, irrespective of gender presentation and race. But the environment I was in wasn’t like that at all. Not doing it was an act of honouring my dignity.
  • When I took a work concern to my boss and instead of dealing with the facts I got, “but Ayesha, don’t worry, I think of you as my daughter, so…”. I did and can still believe it was well-intentioned. It is, nevertheless, not cool. There isn’t a guidebook for what we can and can’t say at work but sometimes you just know. I think we need to have conversations about this, the line between collegiality, disposition and (assumed) compliments that do everything but what they intend. What we shouldn’t do is actually patronise colleagues.
  • When a woman proposes something in a meeting and no one hears, counters or even asks about it. Instead, it’s ignored. Then a few minutes later a male colleague proposes exactly that to applause and excitement. This is one of the most common forms of workplace gaslighting. Women in the Obama administration started supporting each other when this happened to them. At IJR we openly discussed doing the same. I think more workplaces should do this. And men who consider themselves feminist allies have a wonderful outlet to practise it.
  • And of course, the perennial favourite: “You should smile more, you’d look so much more approachable.” Women aren’t at work for display, and if we’re focusing on stuff we will look like… we’re focusing on stuff. Stop asking us to smile for you, we don’t need to and we don’t want to.

I have many more examples but I’ll stop here. I’m pretty sure millions of women can write volumes of their own. DM

Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation.

Photo by Darkday via Flickr

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