Preventing Environmental Microaggressions for Improved DEI

The term microaggression was first used by professor Dr. Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe the ways he saw white students subtly dismissing and putting down Black students at Harvard. The term saw a revival in the 2000s and 2010s as people became more aware of how their actions impacted populations differently.

Discussions about microaggressions highlighted the fact that bias, discrimination, and racism are not always overt and obvious or even consciously intended. Since the term was first developed, society has recognized that there are different types of microaggressions — including environmental.

What Are Environmental Microaggressions?

The environment where we work or spend time carries many cues about what a culture considers to be so-called “normal,” and in some cases this “normal” includes subtle biases and inequities that position one group as more valued than another. Environmental microaggressions refer to systemic problems where the physical place is structured in such a way that it makes one or more groups feel invalidated.

What Are Some Environmental Microaggressions Examples?

Environmental microaggressions can vary depending on the situation. In many cases, they are created by tradition or outdated approaches or environments. For example, a community center may have been set up in the 1900s and not been updated or reconsidered since then. Some colleges were founded centuries ago and may have ingrained biases in their traditions or even their physical campuses. It can be difficult to conceptualize an idea, especially if it’s new, so let’s look at a few examples of environmental microaggressions.

Microaggression examples in schools can include:

  • School buildings, statues, & structures that are named primarily after white donors
  • Honored alumni & professors represented in artwork or honors at the school are primarily white & male
  • School catalogs & marketing materials featuring photos of students that don’t reflect the school’s diversity
  • School holidays based on Christian or traditional traditions that don’t take other cultural or religious holidays into consideration

Environmental microaggressions can be expressed in the physical environment, but they can also come from the workplace or even from other users of the space. In healthcare environments, for example, staff often face situations where microaggressions specific to their workplace occur. That is, these events happen specifically because of the medical setting and the patient’s expectations in that setting.

Microaggression examples in healthcare can include:

  • Female doctors who enter a room to speak with a new patient are assumed to be nurses rather than physicians
  • Male nurses hear comments from patients about their gender & their role
  • Patients may want to see doctors from certain ethnic or racial groups because they assume they are more qualified
  • Patients may not want to work with some doctors or nurses because of their race or gender
  • Patients may ask nurses or doctors who are visible minorities where they went to school or may ask to see their qualifications

These lists are only examples within specific industries. Microaggressions can happen in any industry and any workplace, and they can take many more forms than it is possible to list here. However, these examples hopefully give you a sense of what microaggressions could look like in two different environments.

Environmental microaggressions can occur outside workplaces, too. In communities, troubling examples of microaggressions include communities where large stores don’t want to open shops because of a perceived threat of crime. In some “food desert” communities, there is an excessive number of liquor stores and fast-food restaurants but few stores selling fresh food to residents. Additionally, Black U.S. residents are 75% more likely to live near an industrial site. This difference in exposure to pollution stands even when income is accounted for. These are all examples of environmental microaggressions.

How Can Organizations Prevent Microaggressions?

Preventing microaggressions starts with a commitment to addressing the problem and buy-in from leadership and management. The process involves targeting issues in the workplace, including those less obvious forms of microaggressions that may have become customary, and changing the structure and the way an organization “does business.” You may want to:

  • Offer microaggression training. Training should be non-judgmental & should not make anyone feel singled out. Instead, define microaggressions & stress that examples of microaggressions include unintentionally hurtful actions, words, or even structures. Offer specific examples & offer participants a chance to ask questions & discuss the topic.
  • Take a look at your environment. Over time, we all become accustomed to our surroundings, so try to look with a fresh perspective.
    • What are the names & words used in your workplace on conference room doors, buildings, & other spaces?
    • If images, artwork, or photos containing people appear in your workplace, do the people represented reflect the diversity of your community or company?
    • Do any images of people in your ads reflect your diversity?
    • Do your videos & training materials reflect diversity?
    • Are all spaces in your buildings accessible for those living with a disability?
  • Ask for feedback & be ready to listen. Leadership may not have noticed environmental microaggressions, but team members may have & may have simply never had the space to discuss it. Conduct anonymous surveys or ask for feedback to find out what parts of the workplace may feel less than inclusive.
  • Help all users of your space avoid microaggressions. Some hospitals & health facilities are placing prominent signs, indicating what behavior & wording is & isn’t appropriate with staff. This can help stem certain behaviors. Offering microaggression training to partners & others who use your space can be useful & it can be useful to start discussions in your workplace about productive & safe ways to deal with microaggressions when they happen.

Preventing microaggressions can be challenging for some workplaces because this is a topic that can lead to defensiveness. Some individuals may not understand how they can be asked to change behaviors or systems which aren’t consciously meant to be unwelcoming. It’s important to remain committed and to keep the conversation open.

How Does Preventing Environmental Microaggressions Support Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI)?

Microaggressions can lead to a less inclusive and ultimately less diverse workforce because they send subtle unwelcoming messages to some groups and individuals. Over time, some workers may choose to resign rather than remain in a space where they feel unincluded. That said, addressing microaggressions head on can lead to defensiveness, and this issue can divide workplaces, negatively impacting culture.

Preventing microaggressions, on the other hand, helps create a more comfortable workplace for everyone. It can also encourage team members to stay because they feel respected, valued, and part of the team. A workplace where everyone feels they belong also is stronger culturally and also more trusting.

How Can Diversio Help?

Diversio helps you take the measure of your company, with metrics-gathering and a Diversio Dashboard to help you keep track of your progress.

  • With Diversio, your DEI efforts are summarized in your Diversio Inclusion Score™, which offers one number that lets you compare your DEI metrics to others in your industry & allows you to have one metric you can work on improving.
  • Our unique Sentiment Analyzer™ & metrics-gathering allows you to take the pulse of your company, so you can be aware of any microaggressions in your organization.
  • The Diversio Recommendation Engine™ gives you actionable steps you can implement right away.

Together, Diversio’s resources help you build a robust DEI strategy, one that targets overt and subtle biases that could be holding your teams back.

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Diversio's DEI expert shares everything about diversity that you need to know.
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