Legal Practice

Surviving the Gaslight: Microaggressions at Work

Imagine, you’re in the middle of a networking event and a partner at a firm casually mentions that they’re so impressed with how well you speak English…cue record scratch.

Or you’re starting a new job and your new boss says they’re so excited to have you because they really need someone to spice up the office. …que que?!

You’re likely no stranger to these micro aggressions. You know what it’s like when people keep asking where you’re from, are surprised you speak English, or assume you’re not capable just because of the way you look. Believe it or not, there will be many incidents where people act way out of pocket in how they treat you and what they say and it’s so subtle, so insidious that you sometimes don’t even know how to react.

It is especially prevalent in the legal community because this is a profession that is still conservative (in behavior), exclusive, and often refuses to deal with its implicit/explicit bias problems in an effective way.

Ultimately, this behavior takes a toll on you and can impact your career. At times, the behavior is so vague that you question your own judgement. Other times, you decide to avoid certain events, firms, or people because you don’t want to deal with the extra stress. So how can you react to this? Can you react to it without messing up your career?

The good news is yes, you can respond–but like always, respond with caution.

First, even as annoying it is to have to deal with this you really need to gage whether a thoughtless comment deserves your response. I know this is hard. A death by a million paper cuts still hurts. It’s unfair that people–highly educated people–get a free pass to be so ignorant right to our face. I’m not saying to smile and always take it. But reacting each time not only is draining–it can backfire.

No one likes to be taken to task (even nicely) and if you’re brave enough to call someone out it’s unlikely they’ll respond with gratitude. They’ll be offended that you’re calling out their behavior. They may deny their intent and imply that you’re too thin-skinned or confused–worse, if the person you’re communicating with plays a part in your career (assigning cases, evaluations, etc) it could end poorly.

So then what are your options? Ask yourself, does this person matter? At networking events people often put their foot in their mouths and I excuse myself to get another drink. I’m not there to educate them and there’s no mandate I continue interacting with them.

If they do matter, it helps to measure how ignorant they’re being. Is it constant commentary? Or an occasional mistake? Someone that is a repeat offender, even if they’re your coworker, doesn’t deserve your attention. You can be civil and still keep people at arm’s length. And sometimes that’s what you need to keep your sanity and stay professional at work.

What if they really matter? What if your boss keeps saying things that make your uncomfortable, that makes you question whether they think you’re capable of doing the job?

Document, document document. It’s important to keep a record of the big and small so that when you’re evaluated by this supervisor you can read between the lines and determine what is a valid feedback and what is not. You should also use all the tools at your disposal–seek out mentors within your firm that may be able to guide you because they’ve experienced similar things. Does your firm’s diversity committee promote implicit bias training? Can you recommend it? More importantly, if you’re constantly feeling put upon because of comments that “other” you, it’s time to ask–can I bloom here? And make serious decisions about your growth potential.

Finally, the most important thing is to find a community–whether it’s within your agency or a bar association or former law school classmates –a group of people that are experiencing the same thing or something similar will help your mental health tremendously. Because the thing about micro aggressions is that they’re so subtle that when you do acknowledge what was said, the response is almost always to turn it on you and make you feel bad for reacting. You know, the old classic, “I’m not racist, you’re racist for saying I’m racist,” so a group that can support you, that can say, “no that’s not ok” and give you pointers on the best way to respond will be priceless.

So, that’s where we are. I wish I could give more empowering advice, but the way this systemic oppression is set up, we still have a struggle-ways to go…and we will get there eventually. We will get to a spot where there are more of us, where there’s more awareness and less ignorance. Unfortunately for many of us–those who may be the first through the door or the first to sit at the table–we will experience these types of things. You can get through it, just like you get through everything else. It’s not easy, but when you can face this with eyes open–understanding that their ignorance is about them and not you–it will make the bumps a little easier to handle.