Having to de-escalate and minimize acts of dominance is another part of women’s “emotional work”

The stress of risk assessment on how to handle micro-aggressions is part of a woman’s every day life

Women have always borne the brunt of what is called in today’s parlance acts of “micro-aggression.” This can be wolf-whistling, a wink, a lecherous look, unwanted compliments, sexist comments and banter, to outright groping. But it is always left to women to de-escalate and minimize, or even ignore these every day acts of dominance. This process of risk assessment is a specifically female experience and one that men don’t usually encounter. It adds to the stress of their working day.

Physical risk

For many women gender based micro-aggression is part of their everyday lives. In addition to having to deal with any physical risk involved in dealing with these acts, the energy required to navigate the professional or social outcomes is draining. This involves the stress of risk assessment caused by having to calculate, sometimes in a nano second, the potential backlash of taking assertive or resisting action. Frequently women turn the other cheek or smile indulgently. Women are taught from a very early age to de-escalate and minimize by ignoring or removing themselves from the source of the problem. Or worse pretending it didn’t happen. We are told to say thank you politely to a compliment about our appearance because that is all that counts about us – or did historically. We should be grateful that someone finds us attractive .

Why? Because confronting the perpetrator could be even more damaging. This could be about physical safety  – women have died for rebuffing unwanted advances or contact. A woman was pushed in the path of a London bus, simply because she was on the same sidewalk as a  male jogger.  It could be professionally disadvantageous for a woman who is perceived to be a trouble maker and not understanding it’s “just a boys will be boys thing”.  This line comes even from women who do not see the situation as potentially a serious problem. Women are advised by other more senior women to ignore things.

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Strategic work arounds

And so women create work-around strategies which while effective in the short-term, only serve to perpetuate the cultural tolerance of the situation and therefore extension. It also adds to the psychological burden of having to deal with this sh$t on a daily basis. It’s another element of the emotional work that is part of a woman’s life expectation. Experiencing the eye rolling or outright censorship and accusations of political correctness going too far from even female co-workers can be exhausting. Planning and creating strategies to avoid troublesome situations adds another layer of complexity to life which women could do without.

  • Women have Walk Guardians because it can be dangerous to walk home alone at night after work when public transport may have stopped.
  • We are all told to stay together and to have cab fares in our shoes
  • We all know who the office gropers are and make sure we leave the door open when we go into their offices. We raise our eyes and give knowing looks when we talk about them.
  • We know who to avoid in the elevator and their “wandering hand trouble”.
  • We amplify to support women in meetings so they are heard.

In a group of 6 female friends at dinner 4 had been physically sexually harassed by a male family friend in puberty. None had shared the incidents with their parents. They all chose to de-escalate and minimize the situations to avoid conflict with their parents and accusations of being sexually provocative. They were children but took responsibility for an adult male’s inappropriate behavior. It is also about putting other people’s needs and feelings before our own.

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High levels of tolerance

Women have seen wives in their 50s watch their husbands leer after waitresses in restaurants with a look of feigned impatience. Groups of men making loud sexual remarks about women in clubs and bars is commonplace. Many know fathers who make inappropriate comments about their daughters’ friends. None of this is OK so why do we let it happen?

Gemma Lazura a Baltimore based health worker and psychologist suggests

”There is something imbued in the way men are raised that encourages them to exert power in any space. This comes in every form both verbal, physical. It is sub-conscious, but it happens. Conversely women are trained to avoid conflict, generally for their personal safety, but it spills into other areas too. Men who don’t fit into this mold are penalized almost as heavily as women.”

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