President’s Message: Let’s talk about microaggressions

Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023 By MBA President Grace V.B. Garcia
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MBA President Grace V.B. Garcia

We know that bias has no place in our system of justice. As a trial lawyer, I can use voir dire in an attempt to root out impartial jurors or cross-examine witnesses to expose prejudices that might color their testimony. But what tools do we have for tackling bias at our firms and offices, especially when the behavior may be unintentional or a microaggression? 

For starters, we can talk about it.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” 

Last month, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEIC) did more than get the conversation started at the first of three sessions on “Microaggressions in the Workplace.” The session, through an incredible panel, showed how we can all develop and maintain a diverse network and workplace by creating safe, healthy and supportive spaces. 

With “communication” as one of the three keys to my presidency this year, I am so excited about this program series because it is exactly what is being accomplished in these informative webinars: having conversations and normalizing these often tough and uncomfortable, yet critical, discussions. 

I attended the DEIC’s first “Microaggressions in the Workplace” training session on January 11, which looked at “Mental Health Awareness.” The focus was on microaggressions affecting persons with mental illness and disabilities. One of the key takeaways of why this is such an important topic, and conversation, is that there is no doubt that hostile work environments are harmful for business. As one panelist on the program said, “Getting rid of diversity and inclusion gets rid of innovation and growth.” It was a fantastic and eye-opening program, and I want to thank all of the panelists for sharing their lived experiences and their words of empowerment. 

The second session, which will focus on “How to Attract and Retain People of Color,” is coming up on February 9, and the third session on June 7 will involve a discussion on “Gender Identity.” I strongly encourage you to mark your calendar now for these events and sign up. Not only sign up, but invite a colleague, invite your whole office, and have them sign up and attend as well. Each session is a unique program, so if you missed the first session, you can still take part in either or both of the other sessions. The first session is also available On Demand if you want to watch a recording of the program.

The DEIC’s training series is just one part of our ongoing conversation about improving diversity, equity and inclusion in our profession. It’s also important to make this a conversation with your office or firm colleagues to help create an inclusive culture at work. Take proactive steps, such as providing training and other learning opportunities, and revisit policies to make sure that they help foster an environment where everyone feels valued, respected and included. 

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution or tool to eliminate microaggressions in the workplace. And that is why the most important tool you can use is listening. Get to know people as individuals and do not make assumptions. As another panelist on the January 11 program said, making accommodations or other creative solutions to help someone feel more included should be viewed as a normal part of being on the same team rather than something extra or different. 

Everyone wants and deserves a seat at the table. By normalizing communications about bias and embracing diversity, all the more welcoming that table will be.