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Can #Microfeminism Bridge The Gender Gap In The Workplace?

When it comes to gender disparities in the workplace, can small, everyday actions—what TikTokers are calling #microfeminism—help create a more equitable environment for women?

Tue Jun 11 2024

Women have made significant strides towards workplace gender equality, fighting for gender pay reporting, fair representation, and inclusive policies—and yet the glass ceiling persists.

Despite rising salary transparency across the US and some parts of Europe, the United Nations reports an ongoing global gender pay gap for work of the same value. 

Mental health remains a top concern for working women, with Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2024 survey revealing that over 40% of female employees still face microaggressions and harassment, and many fear career repercussions if they speak up.

In response to a lack of institutional change, workers worldwide are taking to TikTok and other social platforms to share their everyday ‘microfeminist’ acts. The trend consists of small, everyday feminist gestures, such as referring to an unnamed CEO as ‘she’, asking women to share their opinions first in a meeting, or listing women first in an email thread.

 But can microfeminism truly help to close the gender gap? BusinessBecause sat down with two experts in workplace gender dynamics to hear their insights.

 Astrid Kunze, a professor of economics at NHH Norwegian School of Economics, conducts research on family and gender economics, focusing on women’s labor market outcomes. 

Cathy Cassell, executive dean at Durham Business School, researches organizational psychology and the professional development of women.

Why microfeminism matters: the power of individual acts

In isolation, microfeminist acts may not be enough to dissolve patriarchal structures. Where small acts make a difference is in the sense of agency such acts offer women and other underrepresented groups at different stages of their lives and careers.

“Inclusion might be very different at different stages of each person’s career. To foster an inclusive culture, we need to truly understand how our policies impact different groups and different individuals,” says Cathy from Durham Business School.

For young parents, inclusivity might mean flexible work arrangements. For others, it means physical accessibility features and assistive technologies.

When it comes to gender equality, the consistent need for employees to engage in microfeminist acts can signal to a manager that greater measures need to be implemented at an organizational level. It’s telling if women are, for instance, frequently needing to redirect discussion to interrupted women in meetings.

“Women are the minority in many work environments, and it’s mostly down to them to drive microfeminist acts. To have a real impact, it must be driven by at least half of the group,” says Astrid from NHH Norwegian School of Economics.

In environments where women hesitate to engage in more outspoken forms of feminism, particularly in male-dominated spaces, microfeminism offers a low-barrier approach for promoting gender equality, such as greeting a woman first in a meeting, or listing her first in an email thread.

“Successful women in very male-dominated organizations often downplay their femininity to avoid feeling that they stand out,” Cathy explains. 

“Sometimes, women might feel nervous to speak up about something for fear of exposing themselves in some way,” she adds.


Microfeminism can drive a more egalitarian workplace culture

Microfeminism can be a powerful tool to amplify women’s voices and contributions. 

Integrating small measures in everyday interactions—such as highlighting the contributions of female colleagues—can help to normalize equal participation as the standard.

Particularly where female representation in senior leadership is lackluster, assuming that a high-ranking leader is a woman can help to challenge assumptions about competence based on gender.

“Assuming a CEO is female can subconsciously indicate to a woman that she can do that kind of job. On the other hand, if you’re noticing someone describing an unknown CEO as female, it means you’ve thought about it, you’ve processed it, and you’re thinking about women as CEOs,” says Cathy.

Much like unconscious bias training, actively seeking out women’s perspectives in discussions helps to counter the tendency to overlook women’s expertise in meetings—but that’s far from being the sole benefit to an egalitarian workplace.

The impact of diversity on problem-solving and innovation provides a strong case for why diversity benefits business. With women and other diverse perspectives at the table, companies can tap into a wider range of skills and expertise.

“Diverse skills can lead to better business in terms of innovative ideas and better group working, so an organization really needs to make the most of all the diverse talent they have available,” Cathy explains.

Isolating the direct financial impact of diversity is challenging, but a study by the Harvard Business Review shows that diversity leads to higher-quality work, better decision-making, greater team satisfaction, and a more inclusive workplace.

“There are a few studies that find that diverse teams are more productive, but even in studies that don’t find improved performance, as long it doesn't decrease performance, this is already a very positive result,” says Astrid.


Microfeminism as a response to subtle barriers to gender equality

Women are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership, representing just one in four C-suite executives, but workplace gender disparity starts early in the career pipeline.

The argument goes that women are not interested in senior leadership, but with 75% of young women aspiring to high-level roles, this points to an accumulation of other causes along the corporate ladder.

While broader measures are crucial to address systemic bias in hiring and promotion, microfeminist approaches are empowering tactics to address smaller disparities that often go unnoticed.

“We can still observe large gender wage differentials—this often means large differences in hours of work, promotions, and the allocation of ‘non-promotable tasks’,” says Astrid.

‘Non-promotable tasks’—a term coined by economist Lise Vesterlund—are assignments that benefit an organization but don’t necessarily contribute to an individual’s career advancement or performance evaluation. When these are systematically allocated to women, their chances of working on career-propelling projects and gaining visibility are severely limited.

“There are many tasks that have to get done that don't help you become promoted. 

When a manager asks who can do an unpromotable task and there’s a quietness in the room, women are more likely to agree to do it,” Astrid explains.

A recent Harvard Business Review study concluded that the median female employee spends 200 more hours per year on ‘non-promotable’ work than her male counterparts. This amounts to an entire month of work dedicated to activities that don’t advance their careers, which can significantly hinder their long-term career growth. 

Notably, when the study tested volunteer rates in male-only and female-only groups, participants volunteered at equal rates, as men could not rely on women to take these on, and women felt they could rely on each other.

Microfeminism takes the approach of resisting the discomfort of not volunteering and allowing female employees the space to evaluate if they have taken on a disproportionate number of ‘non-promotable’ tasks compared to their male counterparts.

When ‘non-promotable’ tasks are fairly assigned, women are offered a fairer chance to take on assignments that will propel them towards leadership positions.


The future of microfeminism

There’s strength in numbers, and the virality of microfeminism on social media has amplified its reach on a global scale.

“The digital aspect helps spread messages very quickly. Our individual experiences can be accessed by a large number of people almost instantly, which can be very positive,” says Cathy.

Digital platforms facilitate the sharing of best practices, providing viewers with simple ways to challenge gender bias in their daily interactions. These online users can also access testimonials from real people who have successfully applied microfeminism in the workplace, which can have an empowering effect.

“Terms such as micro-aggressions and microfeminism can help us to make sense of our own experience in the workplace. Sometimes, if you're feeling that you don't quite fit, the terminology helps us to conceptualize what's happening to us. I think that's really important,” concludes Cathy.