Evanston Township High School sophomores work on a project every year to make a change in the community during our mandatory civics class. The project varies from class to class, but in my class, the first step was to choose our problem and write a position statement outlining the effects of the issue.

After recently having a disheartening conversation with some fellow female students at ETHS and learning that this was not an issue exclusive to me, I chose to write my position statement about microaggressions against women.

Microaggressions are characterized by their implicit and often subtle nature. When people say, “You’re so smart, for a woman” or “You’re so articulate” to a person of color, it implies the speaker did not expect intelligence because of the identity they hold. Sometimes, they are more obviously harmful, like using gay as an insult or sexualizing a female colleague. They can be used against people who hold any marginalized identity, and are often disguised as a compliment and said by individuals who do not recognize what they are doing. 

After the position statement, we were asked to start putting effort into advocating for those affected by the issue; the position statement originally addressed a much broader issue of sexism within corporate America and how it can preserve the systems that allow domestic abuse.

As a first step to advocating for this issue, I sent out a Google form to prove there is a difference between the way male and female students at ETHS perceive sexism. I sent out the form through my social media accounts, and my Civics teacher sent it to all of his classes.

I got about 60 responses from members of the Evanston community; two-thirds of the responses were from people who identified themselves as women. All of the questions were agree/disagree questions, and they were all optional.

I separated responses from students who indicated they present-as-men and from those who present-as-women and asked a unique set of questions to both parties, but at the end of both, I asked, “Anything else? Stories you’d like to share or clarifications?”

The most notable responses were from this question. From the presenting-as-women group, I got four responses, two of which were 200-plus words. From the presenting-as-men batch, I received three responses, one of which was “Nope,” one said that they’d experienced teachers making comments about their trans identity, and the last was denying that microaggressions are a big deal saying, “I would just call it very mild sexism or something.”

I would like to tell the person who denied the validity of worrying about microaggressions that it often is simply a joke or a comment not meant to hold ill-intent, but microaggressions uphold a system and increase the oppressor’s power.

Pioneers for change have worked tirelessly to allow women and trans people into spaces, not previously meant for them. Still, now that they’ve come into the spaces, they are not treated with the same respect and dignity as their cisgender male counterparts.

Ninety percent of those who identified themselves as presenting-as-women and responded to my Google form said they had experienced a microaggression against them from a classmate; while this student meant no harm, it cuts far deeper than “mild sexism,” and it’s a symptom of an issue the female-presenting students at ETHS are constantly aware of.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...