Are you a university administrator who is left out of lunch invitations by your academic colleagues? Or are you a junior lecturer who feels ignored in a meeting with professors?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may have been a victim of a “hierarchical microaggression” – an everyday slight which, according to a study, devalues an individual because of the role that they hold in an institution.
And you’re not the only one. In fact, the researchers who explored the prevalence of the put-downs at a university in the US found that staff were more likely to face this sort of treatment based on rank than they were because of race, gender or language combined.
Of 191 microaggressions listed as having been witnessed, perpetrated or received by employees at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, 42 per cent related directly to hierarchy, compared with 40 per cent for other issues, according to a paper published online last month by the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
Other examples of unfair treatment given in the article, “Hierarchical microaggressions in higher education”, include a lecturer who remarked “I didn’t know staff could learn things so quickly!” when a member of non-academic staff demonstrated a good memory, and faculty who were happy to greet each other in the hallway but chose to ignore administrators.
In another case, a senior academic shouted at departmental reception staff for failing to inform him of a change in meeting location, only to be informed that it had been the chair of the department who had requested the venue move at the last minute. Shortly afterwards, the same lecturer was spotted joking about the change in venue with the chair, “acting like the lack of notification was no big deal”.
Authors Kathryn Young and Myron Anderson, of MSU Denver, and Saran Stewart, of the University of the West Indies, say hierarchical microaggressions are “of a unique type” in higher education because its strict pecking order is based on perceived intellectual standing.
This separates lecturers and administrators, who often have lesser or no degrees, and divides academics too – particularly, in the US, between tenured and non-tenured staff.
Dr Young told Times Higher Education that it was “shocking” how many of the comments directly related to role, since it had not been expected to come up at all.
She added that the findings were particularly concerning because she considered MSU Denver to be a “very egalitarian place”. “If we are doing it like this, how are other places doing?” she said.