"Off the Grid"--Women's Workplace Exclusion.

Date01 July 2021
AuthorParanjape, Medha R.


Over the last couple of decades, the world has seen a significant amount of progress for women in the workplace. This is evident in the increased number of women receiving higher education and actively participating in the labor markets, not to mention the increased awareness about gender equality. In-spite of all these advancements, corporate workplaces remain painfully underrepresented for women. And, if the diminutive number of C-suite women leaders is anything to go by, we have a long way to catch up to reach gender equity as well as equality (International Labour Organisation, 2017). An important contributor of this gender gap is the inherently gendered nature of the organizations. Research (Aaltio et al., 2002; Cabay et al., 2018; Hatchell & Aveling, 2009; Lester et al., 2017) shows that women continue to experience sexist, unwelcome climates irrespective of the geography, industry, role or level. Such a misogynistic gendered environment is a large part of the social and professional environment in which women operate today (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2011; Heilman, 2012; Jones et al., 2017; Leskinen et al., 2015). Consequently, various studies have identified a multitude of reasons for the leaky pipeline of talented women in the corporate world. And the list of issues is wide ranging, from personal reasons like marriage or motherhood, to organizational reasons of lack of support systems and sponsorship. Contemporary research (Basford et al., 2014) has clarified that although blatant expression of sexism in formal workforces appears to be on the decline, gender discrimination is not actually declining but instead, becoming more subtle, ambiguous and often, difficult to challenge. Most often than not, these subtle, micro acts of discrimination, also known as gender microaggressions (Nadal et al., 2015) create barriers for women's entry and growth into the corporate ladder. While they may not be so apparent, they still manifest themselves in the small number of women reaching the top echelons of corporate ladder.

Gender Microaggressions

Gender Microaggressions (GM), by definition, are brief, commonplace, daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or otherwise, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative gender slights and insults that potentially harm women (Sue, 2010). Basford et al define gender microaggressions as intentional or unintentional actions or behaviors that exclude, demean, insult, oppress, or otherwise express hostility or indifference toward women (Basford et al., 2014). Women are often at the receiving end of such microaggressions from 'well-meaning' supervisors, colleagues and even subordinates. It is their invisibility that makes them so powerful and lethal (Sue, 2010). Such gender microaggressions at the workplace are a growing area of interest to scholars and Diversity and Inclusion professionals. While empirical research work about the different manifestations and impacts of microaggressions is still in early stages of development (Sue, Capodilupo et al., 2007), a few researchers have developed a significant body of work around the prevailing gender microaggression and its experiences at the workplace, specifically in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) (Barthelemy et al., 2014, 2016; Diaz-Espinoza, 2015; Ruder et al., 2018; Yang & Carroll, 2018), Information Technology (Bohr, 2013; Rogers, 2015), academia (Lester et al., 2016, 2017; Schmaling, 2007) and even social work (Ross-Sheriff, 2012). The female dropout reasons like marriage, maternity and motherhood could just be the tip of the iceberg having deeper roots in microaggression which is omnipresent. Just like air, it is all around us but can only be felt.

Based on the past literature in the areas of sexism, scholars proposed common themes of gender microaggression. Sue (2010) and his team proposed sexual objectification, second class citizenship, use of sexist language, assumption of inferiority, denial of reality of sexism, traditional gender role assumptions, invisibility, denial of individual sexism and sexist jokes as possible themes of gender microaggressions. Subsequent empirical research validated the above proposed taxonomy and added a new underdeveloped theme called leaving gender at the door (Capodilupo et al., 2010). But the subjects in this empirical work were university students with no exposure to corporate workplaces. Hence it is crucial to conduct a contemporary inquiry of the lived GM experiences of women in their workplace.

Workplace Exclusion

According to Maslow's need hierarchy, the psychological needs of inclusion and belonging are important determinants for a motivated and fulfilled human life. Feeling loved, wanted and accepted in social groups like family, friends, work colleagues and society, provides a sense of belonging. Any threat to social belonging can be inferred as social exclusion. Simply put, social exclusion is the act of being 'left out' or 'kept out' of social events, discussions, work tasks or decisions. Such exclusionary acts when manifested at the workplace can be termed as workplace exclusion. Workplace exclusion has been studied in the context of workplace incivility (Scott et al., 2013; Sharp et al., 2019) or ostracism (Robinson et al., 2013). Such workplace ill-treatment is a common experience for the marginalized populations at the workplace, like women. While past studies have highlighted the generic experiences and impact of workplace exclusion, the subject of women's gendered exclusionary experiences in corporate workplaces still remain underexplored and is in urgent need of examination. This study at tempts to investigate workplace exclusion using a gender microaggression lens.

Gendered workplace exclusion can be explained as being overlooked, ignored, rejected (Leary, 2001), separated (O'Reilly & Banki, 2016) or undermined (Duffy et al., 2002) based on one's gender identity. Such exclusion hampers positive interpersonal relations, favorable reputation and work related successes (Hitlan et al., 2006).

Study Objective

In this study, we examine the workplace exclusion experiences of mid-senior to senior level women professionals in corporate India. It is also an attempt to extend the repertoire of microaggression taxonomy and contribute to the literature on workplace gender microaggressions. The examination of the data collated during this study uncovers exclusion as a novel theme. The current paper details the findings related to this new theme and as such adds to the existing literature.


As we understand them, microaggressions are subjective experiences of interactions between individuals. Prior research in the area of microaggression has found that it does not lend itself easily to objectivity and hence a more subjective comprehension using a qualitative approach was used to provide a contextually rich material of experiences occurring in natural settings (Capodilupo et al., 2010) and to hear silenced voices (Creswell, 2007). A phenomenological approach was adopted to gather the experiences of 17 women working in the corporate sector in India. Using purposive sampling, it was ensured that each selected participant had at least 8 years of work experience in large, reputed organizations. All attempts were made to ensure representation of variety of functions and industries. Semi-structured in-depth oneon-one interviews were conducted to gather the experiences of participants.

Data Analysis & Findings

The analysis of the participants' interview revealed an overwhelming response on exclusion experiences at the workplace. This novel theme of gender microaggression, viz. exclusion, included experiences of intentional and unintentional exclusion from work discussions, meetings, informal gatherings, office parties as well as other well-guarded hangouts like smoke breaks. Surprisingly, every participant was bursting with a multitude of exclusionary experiences such that they had grown to expect it. Nevertheless, every single instance seemed etched clearly in their memory and reminded them of the devaluation that they suffered with every such instance. The unanimous feedback also reflected the universality of this phenomenon as well as the profound impact that these experiences had on women experiencing them. Emerging from the comments recorded from the participants, three distinct aspects of workplace exclusion were identified as lack of formal inclusion, exclusion from informal...

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