Ways to combat sexism at work - straight from the women who fight the fight!

We all know the feeling: that feeling when you walk into a room and realise that everyone else there is a man. As women in male-dominated spaces, we often feel suffocated by egos and the feeling that we do not take up space or importance, and this can immediately lead to self-consciousness. A lot of government and policy fields can be deemed ‘male, pale and stale’ - the notion that old white men control the narrative and decision-making. Whether they intend to or not, people can take women in the workplace less seriously. Through our own experiences and the varying contributions of the women Women in Foreign Policy have interviewed, this article will advise you on the best ways to deal with these unfortunate situations. 

Historically, gender-based discrimination practices at work have been a consequence of a system formulated with only men in thought. In the era of social media  and movements such as #MeToo, sexism in the workplace has been more vocally discussed across different career avenues. These experiences make it necessary to stress the strength of our unified voices and the power it holds to create an equal future.

Sexism in the workplace ranges in severity; it can sometimes go as far as harassment, but it often takes form as belittlement of contributions by women through microaggressions that can chip against us.  The first sign of gender based harassment and discriminatory practices often comes in the form of feelings of discomfort. In some cases, it is easy for us to feel like our thoughts, opinions, and initiatives are overlooked or dismissed. It is often difficult to recognise that the root cause is due to gender and these feelings of disenfranchisement are valid.  The most common form of this behaviour is typically when a woman or a non-binary person suggests something but is ignored but when a man expresses the same idea later in that conversation, it is met with applause and praise.

Assert Yourself in the room

Sometimes when we assert ourselves as just as worthy as the men in the room, we can be labelled as difficult or hostile. We interviewed Incident Analyst Rabab Iqbal who elaborated on this further:  

“If I go to a meeting mostly peopled by men, I feel that I can't contribute to the conversation as much, or that my opinion isn't taken that seriously because I'm younger than everyone, and I'm a woman. I've felt that I have to come off as more serious than I am, that I have to prove myself to be smarter and more assertive than someone might look at me and assume. Also, there it feels like there is no escaping the fact that people will label me as “aggressive,” “feisty,” or “bitchy” if I choose to assert myself.”

These increasingly underhanded and subtle ways in which gender based discrimination takes shape at work necessitates women working in these male dominated environments to come up with preventative strategies.

The labelling can be disheartening and difficult to disregard but it does not alter your accomplishments or drive to succeed. Although we cannot always alter others’ perceptions of us, we should remain assertive. It is important to not pay attention to your own self-criticism in these moments, to be forgiving and kind to yourself. Being critical and self-aware can be constructive, but sometimes it can hold us back, especially in spaces where men are not inhibited by these same doubts. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or acknowledge when an experience has not been appropriate.

If we aren’t honest about harassment, it makes change impossible. This is discussed by Artisanal Mining and Responsible Sourcing Specialist, Estelle Levin. She tells us to: 

“Be cool, be informed, be careful, be alert, be reasonable, and speak up. Pick your battles, and pick your way of coping with this crap, because it happens, and it is upsetting and infuriating and is a sign of those other people's sorry state of minds; it is not a sign that your value only comes from your body and that you shouldn't dare to use your mind…

Acknowledge your discomfort and take the appropriate harassment measures listed in the workplace handbook

Women are often told to ‘speak up’ about issues, as if it is an easy process in which everyone always listens and change occurs incrementally. Power dynamics within the workplace can make speaking up more difficult to achieve, hence it is important to build lines of communication that can help create a sense of understanding and compassion in speaking up. Although speaking up is a cumbersome process, we should remember that the more we speak up, the more our experiences can be recognised. This will not only benefit us as individuals but also allow other women to be taken seriously. 

Whatever your situation, sometimes having difficult conversations can cause minor improvements which can minimise your pain and sexism at work. Speaking up when you feel uncomfortable in a situation can cause change. We interviewed Criminal Defence Lawyer, Nancy Hollander who told us about her own experience from her early career at the start of which changed her situation positively.

Early on, I was in a courtroom and a judge kept saying, "Gentlemen, approach the bench," or "Gentlemen," this or that. He expected that to be all of us. One day I decided I'd had enough. 

"The problem is you refer to everyone as "Gentlemen"." Those days, there weren't that many women in the courtroom. He said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" I said, "Well, you could say "Gentlemen", two days a week and "Ladies", three days a week, or you could just say "Counsel".

 He said, "Oh, well that's a good idea." It had never occurred to him. Then all these other women kept coming up and saying, "Thank you so much." I said, "Well, it wasn't really very hard. All it took was a conversation."

Gendered language is a common way women are isolated, when ‘guys’ or male collective pronouns are the norm it minimises the female voice.  Nancy’s experience demonstrates how trivial assumptions from within an environment structured entirely in men’s favour can have their perceptions changed by a small action. 

Form a supportive network, create allies! 

Given the work environment and circumstances, it can be useful to first gauge who in the room could be your ally. If you’re in a situation where you are ignored or excluded, you know who you can reach out to for support. The inclusion of engaging womxn into the political field should benefit the fields they occupy, and we should push for further female inclusion. Celebrate the successes of others. Not just because it might benefit your career network, but because we can learn from the achievements of others.  Dr Nathalie Tocci reminds us of using our power to help other women and making sure that perspectives from all sides are given a platform:

“Firstly, if you are in a leadership position, you must be firm on gender issues. For example, here in the institute, if there is an all-male panel, I cancel the conference. I do not care if someone tells me that "oh, we cannot find a woman. She said no at the last moment." I have come to a line of "fine- we are just not going to have this event."

As we learn from these women in policy careers, to overcome male dominated spaces, it’s essential to make other women feel comfortable and safe to discuss gender-based issues in the workplace, that may often be shared experiences. Even at the lowest levels, you have the ability to support other women. 

Remember - fake it ‘til you make it can be surprisingly effective when you feel stuck in a situation or are experiencing “imposter syndrome”. As you stand firm and make incremental changes in the workplace, your win becomes a step forward for many other women and vice versa. Change is not instantaneous but through persistence and allyship it will be achieved. We hope you’re able to make the best of your situation using these tips and join the conversation with us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on Facebook.

Author: Lily Fairbairn

This article represents the views of the author and is not reflective of the institutional stance of Women in Foreign Policy.