Recognising subtle forms of workplace discrimination

Author/editor: Jamie L. Gloor, Tyler G. Okimoto, and Michelle K. Ryan
Year published: 2024


Blatant acts of sexism are no longer tolerated in most workplaces, but that doesn’t mean that sexism has disappeared. Although most employees have experienced or witnessed workplace incivility, those experiences are more frequent among women and racial minorities. 'Selective incivility' (i.e., microaggressions directed toward marginalized groups) is the new, more subtle form of prejudice that is difficult to formally censor because the behavior is often ambiguous, and it is nearly impossible to prove discriminatory intent.

New research with Professor Michelle Ryan and collaborators shows that our identity (who we are) shapes our reactions to these ambiguous situations in our workplace (how we see things). In fact, it even affects our perceptions of discrimination. Specifically, when we highly identify with our workplace—a sense of attachment that ordinarily offers benefits for employee motivation and engagement—it can also hinder our ability to recognize mistreatment when it occurs.

The research investigated how employee identities can influence their reactions to witnessing other colleagues' mistreatment at work, including disrespect and incivility (aka "microaggressions") targeting women. Specifically, we examined the impact of: (1) identifying as a woman, (2) identifying as a feminist, or (3) identifying as a member of the organization.

The research analyzed longitudinal field data over the span of a year, and supplemented these findings with experimental studies, together capturing the reactions of 1,250 employees from Switzerland and the United States. Analyses revealed that a strong sense of belonging within an organization can paradoxically lead to a lower likelihood of recognizing and addressing discrimination against female colleagues.

Put simply, good employees may be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to seeing discrimination within their own workplace.

Fortunately, those same employees (men in particular) were also more likely to intervene once they recognized mistreatment. In other words, despite being generally blind to the bias, once highly identified male employees became aware of discrimination, they were more likely to censor it. However, highly identified female employees were no more likely to act once they saw discrimination (likely due to the social costs women face for complaining).

Updated:  20 May 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications