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The Destructive Impact of Micro Behaviours on Women’s Mental Health

20th March, 2019

Paula Whelan




Taking care of our mental health and wellbeing is as important as taking care of our physical health. MIND suggests that one in six employees experience common mental health issues including anxiety and depression, with work being the biggest cause of stress. And, whilst we all have ‘mental health’ (no matter what gender we identify with), there is evidence to suggest that women are more likely to have a common mental health problem and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. But, could mental health be improved in the workplace if Unconscious Bias was highlighted and addressed?


Women in the Workplace

Within many sectors, women are still significantly underrepresented. This is exaggerated at senior levels and even more evident for BME women and those with disabilities. Unfortunately, stereotypes and assumptions about women in terms of their skills, abilities and potential in the workplace remain. Some of these biases are conscious, however many will be unconscious. Either way, this invisibility or marginalisation can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing.

In male-dominated workplaces, women will be in “out-groups”, increasing their sense of isolation. Not only that but gender bias, a preference for one gender over another, combined with affinity bias, an unconscious preference for people who share qualities with you or someone you like, significantly influence how women are perceived and engaged with. These factors negatively impact on women in terms of recruitment or promotion, performance reviews, levels of bonuses and pay and even inclusion in decision making meetings.


Behaviours that Serve to Exclude

Unconscious bias can often show up in our micro-behaviours - the subtleties in our body language or choice of words, for example, that show how we regard those around us. Micro-behaviours can have an enormous impact on whether women feel valued and included in a team, group or organisation, or whether they feel excluded and unappreciated

What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they are hard to recognise for both the person acting them out and the person on the receiving end.

Do you find that you are constantly interrupted during meetings or discussions with male colleagues; have you gone to a meeting where you were the only one not introduced; have your ideas been ignored or dismissed only for the same idea to be accepted when put forward by a male colleague? These are just a few examples of behaviours that women face in the workplace specifically linked to their gender.

Some further examples of micro-inequities include:

  • Checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation
  • Consistently mispronouncing a person's name
  • Interrupting a person mid-sentence
  • Avoiding eye contact or making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females
  • Taking more questions from men than women (or the other way around)
  • Being left off a list
  • Receiving a perfunctory introduction in comparison to the introductions of others at a meeting
  • Cutting down ideas before they can be considered, or giving greater weight to the same idea presented by another
  • Changing voice pitch, volume, tone, or inflection only when talking to that person, in ways that are not done with others
  • Forced or masked smiles
  • Continuing a conversation without acknowledging the presence of the “outsider”
  • Focusing attention elsewhere, such as a smart phone, when in conversation.
  • Hovering over someone in a controlling manner

These subtle behaviours can go unnoticed, but if they are challenged, the behaviour and impact can be difficult to explain, and they can often be easily dismissed with a suggestion that the recipient is being ‘over sensitive’. This type of response can deter women from challenging the subtle behaviours and further compound the feelings of isolation and marginalisation.

An accumulation of these micro behaviours, in a day, week or month can become overwhelming and chip away at self-confidence, thus resulting in low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and eventually even impacting our mental health.


Together We Can Instigate Change

It is important that we are all aware of our micro-behaviours and unintentional biases; by merely raising awareness, we can begin to mitigate the effects.

So, how can we guard against these biases and behaviours impacting on our mental health in the workplace?

  • Develop self-awareness – are our own biases impacting on how we view ourselves as women in the workplace? Do we stop ourselves from going for that promotion because of our own judgements and assumptions? Why not take the Harvard Implicitly Association Test to get a better understanding of your own biases?   
  • Speak out – if you are on the receiving end of / observe negative micro-behaviours it’s important to speak out. Unconscious biases are just that – unconscious – individuals often aren’t even aware of their behaviour, never mind the impact it’s having. (If you don’t want to tackle the problem head-on, talk to a manager or HR representative)
  • Build support network – being isolated in the workplace can severely impact on our mental health, and this can be further compounded if you are on the receiving end of toxic micro-behaviours. It is important to actively seek out people in your workplace who are positive and supportive
  • Manage stresses and triggers – if you know what these are you can begin to identify how to reduce / manage them effectively. It is important to develop a good life / work balance so begin by reflecting on where the current balance is and what you can do to get a balance that works best for you

Paula Whelan, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at RightTrack Learning, says: "If you observe or experience micro-behaviours in your workplace, find a way to challenge them – you are not being over sensitive, they are negative behaviours that may seem small but they can have a big impact.”

Paula Whelan

Paula Whelan is Head of Diversity & Inclusion with RightTrack Learning. RightTrack are specialists in the design and delivery of bespoke, in-house training solutions in a range of different subject areas including Diversity & Inclusion, Inclusive Leadership and Unconscious Bias, often brought to life with actors and forum theatre. Customers include: GoCompare, Hitachi, Royal National Lifeboat Institute, Mace, Kellogg’s, Cath Kidston and News UK.

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