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DIFF: Microaggressions may be small, but they wear down self-confidence

  • 26/03/2024
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DIFF: Microaggressions may be small, but they wear down self-confidence
This month, the Diversity and Inclusivity Finance Forum (DIFF) session centred on microaggressions, why people do them, and the impact they might have on people.

Bharat Sagar, ambassador at large at AE3 Media, opened the session addressing delegates with “welcome ladies and gentlemen to today’s first example of an avoidable, potential microaggression”. 

AE3 Media stopped using the address “ladies and gentlemen” two years ago and now uses “everyone” in acknowledgement that not everyone identifies as a male, female, lady or gentleman. 

Sagar said it was never the company’s “intention to other anybody, but we could have done and probably did do for the last 30 or 40 years”. 

He said this was also a “very easy thing to fix” as “everyone” was more inclusive. 


A life filled with microaggressions 

Damie Oladebo, principal consultant at HR Rewired, then presented on the subject of microaggressions, defining them as slight or small actions and behaviours that are incessant and cumulative, that are done in automatic, preconscious or an unconscious fashion.  

She said they had a “pervasive effect” on the stability of people.  

Oladebo was born in Nigeria and her family moved to Canada when she was a child. She said it was a “difficult transition” going from being one of many, to being the first and only black person the people around her had met or spoken to. 

While in school in Canada, a fellow student who was a “nice boy” pulled her braid, said it looked like snakes and likened her to Medusa. She said she received comments about her hair throughout her life, with words like “funky”, “interesting” or “disco”. 

Oladebo said: “Sometimes I think people hear these microaggressions and think: ‘Oh, those comments about your hair or your same sex partner or about the fact that you don’t have children or the fact that you’re a woman are small things’.  

“But the thing to draw out is that it’s not just about them being small behavioural slights, it’s the fact that like me when I was 10 and like many other people who are born different and look obviously different, they’ve been receiving those comments since they were children.” 

She added: “The effect of that means that they never get to live a life or never get to walk into a place knowing that nobody’s going to bring up anything about them and the fact they are different. It gets to a point where it wears somebody’s self-confidence down.” 

Oladebo said people did not always consider the impact of the “small” comments they made. 


Feeling out of the loop 

Oladebo said for people who were corrected on their behaviour around this, it could be uncomfortable particularly if they were not used to being pulled up on things or being in the wrong. 

She said they did not like “being out of the loop” or not being in the know but said this was the typical experience of people from underrepresented groups. 

She added: “Often, when you’re the person that’s always different in the room or you don’t have an identity that’s celebrated in society, you are always out of the loop.” 

Oladebo spoke of how she changed the way she dressed and spoke in an attempt to fit into work environments, adding: “That’s not something most people actually have to do”. 

She said people needed to take initiative when learning about microaggressions and embedded attitudes towards certain people. 

You are going to make these mistakes and that’s okay,” she added. 

She said biases were built in from the age of three and in some cases, earlier.  

Biases are unavoidable, she said, and no one is exempt from it. She said biases came from multiple places in society and were not always on purpose, but could be “damaging”. 


Ensuring psychological safety of employees  

Oladebo said fostering an environment where people were encouraged to speak up was a must. Without this, if the person who made an inappropriate comment reacted with shock, got upset or cried, “then it becomes a thing where the person who has been essentially a victim of microaggressions their whole life is now the perpetrator for hurting someone’s feelings”. 

She said it took “a lot of bravery” for someone who was a minority to stand up for themselves. 

Oladebo said workplaces often created safe spaces when something really bad happened, after George Floyd protests post-2020, but said it was important to not just be reactive. 

“That’s not how life works. 

“You want to create a space. A constant space where people can talk and give their feedback and know that it’s going to be valued,” she added. 

She said the second stage was the value of these initiatives, as when the spaces were created, they often were not “taken anywhere”. 

Oladebo said people at every single level of a workplace should be able to communicate and changes should be implemented because without change “you’re never going to feel psychologically safe”. 


Intentions and learning

The second half of the event included a fishbowl session, where people discussed their experiences of microaggressions either from the perspective of unknowingly doing them or being on the receiving end. 

Steve Bryan, director of distribution and marketing at The Exeter, said if he got things wrong, he would “be mortified”, but was comfortable with being educated. He said this had become easier as he got older. 

Will Hayward, managing director at Sirius Finance, said it was necessary to acknowledge times changed and the words used in society had evolved, so people may need correcting on the right things to say and it was not always coming from a bad place. Bryan said this was true as his daughter kept him up to date. 

Sidney Wager, mortgage intermediary partnerships director at Barclays, said it depended on the situation as missteps made could be an unintentional, subtle, unconscious bias driven by someone’s upbringing. 

Jennifer Nursiah, partner at Coreco Group, said it would be good if people took time to learn the different kinds of microaggressions. 

Oladebo said offence caused was not always about the action or comment itself, but the power dynamic it created between people. She said it was an assumption that if a person had good intentions, then the microaggression was fine. 

Lesley Cappellaro, intermediary regional manager at Barclays, said as a lesbian, people would question her about the experiences of transgender people assuming she had knowledge because she was part of the LGBTQ+ community. She said this made her wonder if people really wanted to know or were being lewd. 

Sagar asked if it was the duty of the victim to call out microaggressions, Oladebo said people did not always understand the context of things and even minorities went through their own learning journeys. 

She said sometimes people did not realise when someone had directed microaggression towards them as not all minorities were “experts”. Additionally, putting the onus on minorities to repeatedly explain why behaviour was unacceptable could be a “burden” and continue to create a “dynamic of difference”. 

Cappellaro said she had days where she could not be bothered to correct people and sometimes, her colleagues would step in to do this on her behalf. 

Hayward said he also had times where he could not be bothered to correct people who assumed his partner was a woman and would just answer “yes” to the question of his “wife” being okay. 

An audience member said in these instances, the value of an ally should not be underestimated.  


Key takeaways 

  • Biases are developed from a young age, are normal and present in everyone. 
  • Although microaggressions are small actions or behaviours, it may form part of a continuing long-term experience for the person affected. 
  • Safe spaces at work need to go one step further and lead to company-wide change. 
  • It can be a burden for people to always have to point out behaviour that affects them. 
  • People should look to be allies where possible. 


The Diversity & Inclusivity Finance Forum is a network which aims to discuss and promote key ideas and activities to create a more balanced and fair mortgage industry. If you would like to become a member, please get in touch with for more details.

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