How to respond to sexism at work and propel yourself forward

How I respond to sexist attitudes

Ask any woman in the workforce, and she is bound to have at least one story on how she was underestimated, undervalued or misjudged because of her gender.

While we may have been freed from this backwards thinking in many circles, in some circles – particularly in the corporate world of some industries – we still have to encounter and effectively deal with this on a regular basis.

Personally, I was introduced to it early in my career working as an industrial relations officer for an employer association in a historically male dominated industry before I became a practising lawyer.

Many of the members were male and regularly assumed I was the industrial relations manager’s assistant and would be reluctant to speak to me to get advice. They would also often leave out crucial information because I was female, which would alter the advice. 

However, once they provided me with the opportunity to give the advice they would then be happy to speak with me…if the manager was not available.   

Moving into a legal practice was a new experience again.  Within my firm it is great but occasionally we have clients who assume I am the principal’s assistant despite my title as a senior lawyer and will insist on speaking with a male.

In these cases, the director refers them back to me after reiterating my position and competence, and they have no qualms about dealing with me going forward.

You can probably imagine what it is like when encountering some male legal opponents.   

While we shouldn’t have to experience these attitudes and behaviours in the workplace, the reality is that we do and we need to find ways to overcome it. How exactly? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but this is what has worked for me.


Have confidence in your knowledge and ability and don’t let doubters stand in your way. If you need to, fake it! Play the role of a confident person. If you present and interact with confidence respect often follows.

Be true to yourself 

Don’t change to adapt to this backwards way of thinking. Your individuality adds to your value. Speak up, give your opinion and don’t apologise unnecessarily. Keep your arguments succinct and if you point out a problem always have a solution ready.

Feed yourself not them

Sometimes addressing backwards thinking and behaviour only empowers the person acting inappropriately. I prefer to focus on proving them wrong rather than giving them more attention. Personally, people who doubt me or underestimate my ability due, create an even stronger desire for me to be a better lawyer. 

Select mentors 

Find a mix of male and female mentors and have regular catch ups with them. Not only will you learn valuable information that will further your career or business, but you will also be able to learn from how they have dealt with these situations and get good advice on how to manage these attitudes within the workplace.

The truth is backward attitudes exist – in and out of the world of work. While we can’t control the viewpoints of another, we can rise above it and use their backwards thinking to propel us forward.

How do you overcome backwards attitudes in the workplace? 

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