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The Happy Academic

Authentic respect in academia

How to address microaggressions and discrimination.


Ever felt truly unseen in a meeting? Passed over or patronized by passing comments? Frustrated that others are blind to your skills, rock-solid experience, or stellar potential contributions? If you’re a woman, BIPOC, LQBTQq2+, or viewed as disabled, these experiences probably happen often. And of course, we shouldn’t forget the compounding effects of intersectionality.

If you’re a white male in academia, you may struggle to even see these patterns around you each day or realize how you contribute to them via your action or inaction. Positionality and privilege binds and blinds.

Indeed, despite claims to be inclusive and collaborative – microaggressions and discrimination are rife across all types of workplaces, including academia. These are not mere occurrences, but reflect and contribute to deep inequities and consolidate existing power structures. Hampering diversity, these stop our universities from being as successful as they could be. This is why practicing authentic respect is so important.

Authentic respect is about courageous inclusivity. As Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor recently shared:

“Radical Respect describes the culture in workplaces that honor everyone’s individuality, rather than demanding conformity; and that optimize for collaboration, not coercion.”

Authentic respect arises from this basis, not from following procedures or policy as writer Karissa Thaker also reminds us in her book, The Art of Authenticity:

“…Being an authentic leader is not about just making the right ethical decision…It is primarily about doing the work every day to bring your best self forward into the world…It is a daily decision.”

To show up with authentic respect is to be fully yourself – not because of policies or procedures, but because it is part of who you are. A deep commitment that unites ethics and self. Dr. Thaker reminds us that this is a process of “self-invention, creation, and ongoing self-shaping.” It entails not letting go of your filters of communication, psychologist Susan David explains in Emotional Agility, but rather integrating emotion, information, and values into your communication and behaviour to be your best self.

Authentic respect is built from your values, as well as learnable behaviours and skills. Here we share what experts suggest you can do to help embed it into your life.

1. “Call out” or “call in” bad behaviour

In some cases, where blatant discrimination, aggression, or disrespect is observed, even if not intended as malicious, “calling it out” is right. Calling out is a way to interrupt the behaviour and publicly warn individuals. However, this approach can also have public ramifications and may not bring about behaviour change.

Alternatively, “calling in” recognizes that people make mistakes, and gives the opportunity for others to modify their behaviour through compassion and patience. As Natalie Schraner Hayes describes the practice:

“Calling in is not a platform to launch into a lecture…not shaming and it’s not getting people stuck in their guilt [Through a private conversation] “calling in can be a powerful tool to address those mistakes, and create space for change and positive impact.”

2. Stay curious

As a key part of “calling in”, be careful to judge what is influencing others’ conduct. Instead of assuming that comment from your colleague in a meeting was patronizing to you because you are a woman, get curious. Kim Hyshka from Dialogue Partners is an expert at the opening and facilitating important and also difficult conversations. In this situation, she suggests:

“I’d like to pause for a moment and make sure we are working from the same assumptions and information. When I heard you say _____: it didn’t land well for me. Could you elaborate more on what you mean and where you’re thinking it’s coming from? Or would you like me to elaborate more?”

You may find that in fact your colleague does not regard you as an equal due to your gender, role status, or otherwise, but importantly you will be able to understand more of their frame or motivation, and learn more about each other to move forward.

3. Use role positioning for good

If you’re in position of privilege, especially as a leader in a senior role, reflect on how you can support colleagues. For example, to call in or call out behaviour is challenging for those who don’t feel secure in their roles, or are more junior. Those with better positioning should take on this responsibility and have open conversations with colleagues about what support is needed. Those who are minoritized for a variety of reasons may benefit from a champion or advocate in the workplace who will help not only to open doors, but also to highlight their accomplishments, abilities, and experience to those who intentionally or unintentionally, may not readily recognize it.

Whichever strategy you choose, remember: the seeds of authentic respect are sowed in your own values and conduct, not your university’s policies or procedures. How will you show up with authentic respect for your colleagues the next time you see them?

Bailey Sousa & Alexander Clark
Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. Alex is president of Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Joe / July 30, 2023 at 16:24

    The title and opening portion of the article highlight microaggressions as a problem, but the first and only real solutions are “calling out” and “calling in,” the former of which is recommended for “blatant discrimination, aggression, or disrespect,” ergo, not microaggressions. If one is “truly unseen in a meeting… [p]assed over or patronized by passing comments… [f]rustrated that others are blind to your skills, rock-solid experience, or stellar potential contributions…” it may also be worth considering that these perceptions are assumptions, i.e. that you are seen, that you don’t have skills, rock-solid experience, or stellar potential contributions, and/or that the passing comments don’t have much to do with your social identity.

    Calling in is a way of expressing that someone else’s implicitly learned behavior (i.e. culture) makes them feel disrespected, but privately, so as not to arouse antagonism. On the other hand, “staying curious” implies that the culture which underpins said perceived disrespect is highly premeditated, which it likely isn’t. Therefore, the idea that “you may find that in fact your colleague does not regard you as an equal due to your gender, role status, or otherwise,” would at best be true only at the level of habit and wouldn’t be something the other person is likely to admit. Similarly, the idea that one “will be able to understand more of their frame or motivation,” clashes with the presumption which underlies calling out/in to begin with – namely, that the disrespect is tangible and rooted in tangible beliefs/perceptions of the same kind on the part of the perceived transgressor. Ergo, this article doesn’t seem to prevent a version of “staying curious” that isn’t simply confirmation bias.

    • AW / August 2, 2023 at 17:02

      Reads to me like Joe is a person who does not have direct experience with being dismissed or undermined (subtly or overtly) in an academic setting. The second paragraph (a bit winding) also doesn’t convince me that Joe grasps the subtelty of unconscious bias (of course culture isn’t premeditated, and staying curious is about giving the other person a chance to reflect on their habitual behaviours, which are often unintentional and unexamined).

      It seems obvious to me that the article assumes that a _lack_ of skills, expertise or stellar potential contributions is _not_ the root cause of the marginalized person being dismissed and undermined. Reducing this article to the authors offering no protection against confirmation bias (seeing a mean “transgressor” behind every encounter that isn’t a pat on the back) smells just a bit of gas lighting to me.

      People with lived experience of being dismissed (by Joe Average) when they have a lot more to contribute (than Joe Average, who’s often oblivious to how much space he takes up in a public forum) are all too familiar with being told that they’re “just too sensitive” or “seeing too much into it” or that they have “confirmation bias”.

      And while Point 3 is indeed not a distinct solution form calling out/in, dismissing power dynamics again sounds like Joe hasn’t got much direct experience with _not_ having power (at least in an academic setting).

      • John / August 4, 2023 at 09:51

        There are many articles that can be easily researched that criticize the topic of microagressions. It is unfortunate there are individuals who are hypersensitive to normal conversation. Granted there are those that while expressing their curiosity or views that are not as diplomatic as they should be. This should be interpreted as such. There is no need to fabricate negativity through so-called microagressions. There are enough people, thinking they are at the centre of the universe, that believe everyone is against them, There is a technical term for that. There is no need to add to those feelings by giving them something dubious to worry about. Many people that might be termed average that are easily offended should really get a better grip on reality. Many people can be sloppy in speech and actions as they are just human thus meaning no real offence. For those that may find the above objectionable I would say “Buck up” life is tough – develop better self-esteem and some resilience.

  2. Prof. Jean-Marc Drouet / November 10, 2023 at 15:50

    I wonder if the authors have read [Campbell, B., and Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and Moral Cultures. Comparative Sociology 13, 6, 692-726]. Campbell and Manning’s article covers topics such as social control and victimhood, and it pretty much “explains” the UA article above.

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