Gender Microaggressions - We're All Guilty of Them

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Momentous Institute
By Momentous Institute Mar 26, 2018

During our race series on this blog, we wrote about microaggressions that people on our staff had experienced related to their race or culture.

Just as there are microaggressions related to race, gender microaggressions are abundant in our society. These are small, seemingly innocuous comments that can pile up over time and affect a person’s sense of self and identity. These microaggressions can become so commonplace that we don’t even notice them. Here are a few examples of common gender-related microaggressions:

“Boys will be boys”

This phrase is used to dismiss any traditionally masculine behavior, such as when a boy is aggressive with another child or when a boy comes home covered in mud. The problem with this phrase is that it implies that certain things are human nature for boys (but not girls). It also implies that boys have no self-control or power over their actions. “Boys will be boys” can be a damaging phrase that leads boys to believe that they aren’t responsible for their own behavior.

“Act like a lady”

This phrase holds girls to a standard that is based on historical gender roles, but might not be consistent with a girl’s personality. Sometimes people say, “Act like a lady” to mean that a girl should be kind, and of course, we want girls (and also boys!) to be kind. If a child is acting unkind, that is not acceptable, but it shouldn’t be linked to gender. Other times, this phrase is used to imply that girls shouldn’t get dirty, climb trees or run barefoot. If a certain behavior is acceptable for boys, it should also be acceptable for girls. If we don’t mind that a boy is running barefoot, we shouldn’t mind that a girl is.

“Man up”

This phrase is used to tell boys and men that they should be macho, tough and brave. It is commonly used when men show emotion, such as crying. When boys and men are discouraged from expressing their emotions, it can lead to a challenging and incorrect view of masculinity. Boys learn early on that showing emotion is a feminine trait and in turn learn to handle their emotions in ways that can be less healthy. Both boys and girls should be encouraged to express their emotions in whatever way feels natural to them.

“I need a few strong men to help me lift this”

When adults use phrases such as this, they are telling children that only boys are strong and conversely, that girls are weak. Depending on the age and development of the children, it might be true that boys in a certain group are in fact stronger. However, this message doesn’t need to be focused on gender at all. An adult can say, “I need a few strong helpers” without making it about gender, and the boys and girls can determine for themselves who the strong helpers will be.

Differentiated Language

Imagine two children, one boy and one girl. Let’s say both of them are fidgeting at their desk. What word do you use to describe the boy? What about the girl? If it’s not the same word, this might be a gender microaggression. Some people use different words when describing boys and girls, such as “bossy” versus “leader”, “annoying” versus “passionate”, “class clown” versus “center of attention”.

“You look like a princess”

In general, people comment more on girls’ clothing and appearance than that of boys. With boys, people are more likely to ask them questions about their hobbies or interests rather than their dress or hair bow. But when they do comment on boys’ appearance, you may hear phrases like, “You look like the next President of the United States!” With girls, you’re more likely to hear, “You look like a princess!” These small comments send messages that boys can grow up to run the country while girls can only aspire to be princesses.  

Using a student’s legal name rather than the name the student uses to refer to him/herself.

Within a transgender population, there are some youth who prefer to go by a different name or pronoun than the one assigned to them at birth. These young people often face microaggressions related to this terminology. For example, if a student’s legal name is “Alexander” but the student has decided to go by “Alexa”, an adult who continually calls the student “Alexander” and uses “he” and “him” to describe the student is sending a message that the child’s identity is not accepted. Students know that they have a legal name for certain settings, but socially if a student prefers to be called by a different name than their legal name, adults can help by accepting the child’s preference.  

“You look like a boy” or “You need a haircut”

Girls who choose to wear their hair short are often told, “You look like a boy” and boys who grow their hair long are told, “You look like a girl” or “You need a haircut.” First, if a girl looks like a boy, why is that a bad thing? What’s wrong with looking like a boy? Second, and more importantly, there’s no such thing as “boy” hair and “girl” hair. Boys and girls should be free to wear their hair in whatever way makes them feel confident and beautiful.

“You’re gonna have to fight the boys off with a stick”

This phrase is typically directed at dads of daughters, and implies that their daughter is so pretty that, not only will boys be attracted to her, they won’t have any respect for her at all. It says that her dad will have to be the one to defend her against boys with no sense of self-control. This statement is disrespectful to both boys and girls. It implies that boys are not capable of treating girls with respect, and implies that girls won’t know how to be in a healthy relationship based upon mutual respect, but instead will need her dad to come to her rescue.

These microaggressions, and many others not mentioned, don’t seem that harmful. And in fact, if they stood alone among a sea of positive comments related to gender, might not be. But in truth, these comments pile on top of each other. Boys and girls internalize these messages and use them as a basis for the way they believe boys and girls should behave. It can be challenging to think about subtle comments that we’ve all made that may be unintentionally harmful, but in being self-reflective, we are able to help chip away at some of the gender inequities and help all boys and girls succeed. 

©2018 Momentous Institute
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