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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

“It’s amazing to me how much of this I just take for granted.”

That’s what a participant said at the end of a recent workshop on implicit bias. She was a Black woman, probably in her 40s. 

“Growing up, I just thought that it is what it is,” she continued. “There’s stuff we’re so used to that we don’t even notice or question.”

The group had been discussing microaggressions: the way in which implicit bias reveals itself in people who don’t believe themselves to be biased. Microaggressions can sound like compliments or jokes, in the form of words or behaviors. But they are slights, seemingly small, based on stereotypes that people from marginalized groups chronically experience. 

As in every workshop, the participants had no trouble generating dozens of examples. 

It's amazing how many microaggressions I just take for granted.

And when this woman said she’d taken them for granted her whole life, I thought, wow. How much have I gotten used to, to the point where I don’t even notice anymore?

Just the day before, on my birthday, I went to a spa to treat myself. The woman at the spa, who was white, greeted me with “Hey girlfriend!” She was very chipper and helpful overall, but after she “girlfriend”ed me five more times, I started to wonder. Does she say this to everyone? Does she think this is the way to connect with a Black woman? She was trying to be nice, I told myself, so I let it go. But it hooked into my mind and made it harder to relax. 

Similar slights happen to my friends of color on a regular basis. A Black couple I know has been directed so many times to the least desirable table in the restaurant (near the front door, the kitchen door, or the bussing station) that the wife will not sit down until her husband has surveyed the restaurant and said it is okay. It has become a pet peeve that he will no longer accept.

Those things aren’t happening to my white friends. Each one alone may not be a big deal, but added together they are. That’s the thing with microaggressions: the impact builds over time.

I also started thinking of other things we accept that cause harm. Stuff like norms in the office: who speaks first in meetings, who gets listened to. The way a male client looks at the men on the team but doesn’t make eye contact with the women—even when a woman is the team leader. 

Or how hierarchy affects our interactions without being explicitly named. When our clients start to assemble teams to develop strategic plans, a lot of them come back with lists of people from leadership. They’re used to allowing only senior employees to set priorities. They’re surprised when we ask them to bring people together from different levels. Even more junior people think that’s just the way it is—although I’m seeing the younger generation pushing back a little. Good for them!

We accept so many inequitable, infuriating things as given. But there is really no reason to do so. 

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Several years ago, I was in Nashville with my daughter Maya, visiting colleges. We went to lunch with my aunt and a bunch of her friends who were in their early to mid 60s. 

They were all gushing over how pretty and smart Maya was. (Correctly, I must say). 

And at least two of them said, “Ooh, I want to introduce you to my son!” 

Maya just smiled and didn’t say anything. But I knew what she wanted to say—and afterward she confirmed it:

“Do you also have any daughters?” 

Maya came out as bi in high school. Right from the start it was very important to her that people know that about her, and not assume based on her appearance that she was straight. I remember she sat me and her father down and presented us all with this research she had done to help us get ourselves educated. 

I’m still grateful for that education.

Like many people, I’ve made assumptions about people’s sexual orientation based on how they look to me. I suspect I often go for heterosexual as the default. I usually don’t even know I’ve made an assumption until someone tells me and I find myself feeling surprised.

In a recent workshop, a woman who works in property management and construction raised her hand to share that male contractors and vendors she meets through work routinely ask her what her husband does. 

But she has a wife. 

As far as they’re concerned, she presents as “feminine”—which they conflate with “attracted to men.” 

The participant went on to explain that when they do that, it forces her to make a choice between correcting them—when she might not be interested in sharing personal information—or letting it go and feeling inauthentic and unseen. 

The lesson, of course, is to practice a simple change in our language: say “spouse” or “partner” or “significant other” if you are referring to a couple whose genders you don’t know. Intellectually you know that you can marry someone of your own gender, but our small-talk habits may not have caught up.

A few weeks ago I wrote a similar thing about misgendering someone. The fact is, our society is in the midst of a dramatic shift in acknowledging and including a wider range of gender identities and relationships. 

Everyone should be able to be themselves and not conform to the binaries and homophobia that have been enforced for a century. Adjusting our language accordingly is simply a matter of etiquette. 

P.S. Ever since Maya started dating Olivia, many people have assumed she is a lesbian. Now they are engaged to be married—and Maya is still bi. Assumptions abound.

“Getting older is cool—everybody is doing it.” 

That’s what Nora Moreno Cargie said to me earlier this year when I was interviewing her for a LeadBoston program. 

As I celebrated my birthday yesterday (happy birthday to me!) I remembered that quote and cracked up again.

But then I thought about it, and I realized it’s funny because it’s, well, a joke. Aging isn’t cool. At least, it isn’t treated that way in our culture. Women especially seem to drop in status as we get older. 

This phenomenon comes up sometimes in my workshops. Recently I was working with a group of new managers, discussing the behaviors of managers they had experienced over the years. Which would they want to emulate or avoid? 

I was listening to one small group discussion and heard a participant share how frustrating it is when a senior member of a team isn’t willing to use technology. Failure to use it makes more work for everybody else. 

Others at the table piped in with comments implying that age made it harder for them to learn, that they didn’t want to put in the effort, and that they were stuck in their old way of doing things. 

Now, I can certainly understand the frustration. But I wondered if these young managers were making assumptions about why their older colleagues weren’t using the technology. 

Back in the large group discussion, I probed a little. The participant acknowledged it was possible that the senior colleague had had a bad experience with the tech. Even she admitted it didn’t always work well.

I probably recognized that potential bias because it’s one I’ve caught myself experiencing. Not long after the workshop, I was at the grocery store heading for the checkout lane. When I saw an older person in front of me, I thought for a moment, “Uh oh, this lady will be slow, confused about the buttons, and needing a lot of assistance. I’d better switch lines.”  

Then I paused. I was doing it again—jumping to stereotypes I’d picked up and judging someone unfairly. 

When I stopped to look at my fellow shopper, I could see she was moving with agility, quite able to lift the detergent bottles to the belt, and already had her credit card out to tap on the machine. 

Other cultures revere their elders, and the wisdom they have to share from their experience. What is it about our culture that we have so much trouble embracing this idea? Like all biases, ageism makes us miss out on people’s inherent value. Why sideline people who still have more to give? 

I guess this question feels especially resonant today, as I am a year closer to being one of the elders!

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