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I was mistaken for the receptionist at my own meeting. Here's how I responded.

Over 50 percent of women have been mistaken for junior staff or janitors. Author Selena Rezvani shares her experience and offers tips on how to respond.
Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."
Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."Gabrielle Smarr

“Excuuuuse meeeee!” an executive bellowed while pointing at his mug.

We were standing in a large, noisy conference room with at least a dozen other people swarming around before a meeting. I continued laying out my notes since I was getting ready to present momentarily.

“Helloooo?” he looked directly at me. “A little help?” “This milk…is off.”

With an uncomfortable smile, I said, “I’ll let the receptionist know.” Almost immediately, he smacked his head and said “Oh, I thought you were the receptionist.”

Nope. In fact, that day I was presenting the findings of a global study I lead-authored for one of the largest companies in the world! In that moment, his view of me stung. And on many other days since, I’ve been on the receiving end of people “rounding down” in terms of my stature, position or degree.

It’s not just me.

Women are constantly overlooked, spoken over, and underrepresented at work. Even if a co-worker or colleague doesn’t mean to be impolite when they call you by the wrong title or assume you are junior staff, their lack of awareness and effort to get to know you can prickle. You’ve worked just as hard – possibly harder – than them to get to where you are. You deserve the recognition.

A recent study, You Can’t Change What You Can’t See, inquired into systemic bias across legal professions. It found that, out of the women surveyed, 58 percent of women of color, and half of the white women have been mistaken for administrative staff or janitors. Only 7 percent of white men could say the same.

In addition, a and McKinsey study called Women in the Workplace found the following statistics about women when they are the only woman in their workplace:

  • They are more likely to have their judgment questioned than women who work with a balanced gender group (49 percent versus 32 percent)
  • They are more likely to be mistaken for junior staff (35 percent versus 15 percent)
  • They are more likely to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent versus 14 percent)

It’s not only disrespectful and unfair when women are treated this way, but it can seriously affect the trajectory of their careers. If you are constantly questioned, undervalued, and patronized by your peers, people are less likely to consider you for a promotion or exciting stretch assignment – no matter how much it’s deserved.

Add to this the internalization of being underestimated – where for some, they absorb the idea that they are “less than.” In a case like this, a person’s assumed inferiority might make them opt out of high-level opportunities for fear they’re not up for the job.

How to correct a colleague

No matter what industry you work in, it never feels good when someone assumes you’re in a junior position, especially when it happens more than once. Although the encounter might make you want to shout a few expletives, try to keep your interventions productive.

So, here’s how you can handle those situations:

Ask why they think you are junior staff.

They might not be aware of your actual position. Although that’s careless of them, you can make them aware of their shortcoming by asking, “Is there a reason you think I’m a [position]?”

Use reflective listening.

When someone mistakes you for junior staff, reiterate their statement back to them. For example, if someone asks you to do an administrative task, you can say, “So you’re asking that I order the lunch?” You can then explain how seeing you’re the highest-ranking engineer (or fill in the blank), that’s not the best use of your time. It will open a conversation for you to correct them and make them aware of their mistake.

Use “you” statements.

You’ve probably heard that “I” statements are best when trying to resolve conflict, but not in this case. If someone is throwing microaggressions at you, they need to be made aware that they are acting out of line. You might say, “Why do you tend to default to the women here whenever someone needs to book a conference room?”

Focus on the task at hand.

You have a job to do at the end of the day, and your colleague’s attitudes are hindering your performance. You can make them aware of this by saying, “I’m really trying to get X done and I’m not feeling very motivated when you constantly assume I’m underqualified.”

Get some one-on-one time.

Getting a coffee or lunch with someone who makes incorrect assumptions about you is probably the last thing you want to do, but it can make a huge difference. Even just one conversation can give this person a chance to know you on a deeper level. When you have a stronger relationship with someone, they’re more likely to take the time to consider your thoughts and feelings.

Be direct.

Sometimes the best way to correct someone is to just get it out. Be polite but firm. “I have worked hard to be in X position, and I won’t have you undercutting my success. Please do not refer to me as X again.”

Work on a project together.

When you’re given the lead on a project, try to get the person who mistakes your position on your team. This will allow you to show yourself in action, so they won’t make that mistake again.

Go to the boss or HR.

If you are continuing to experience disrespect and microaggressions from a colleague or co-worker, you might have to bring in the big guns. Make your boss or HR aware of the situation so you can have documented evidence of how this person is treating you. They deserve to be let go from the company if it turns out their behavior is intentional, and HR can help you build a case.

Constantly fighting injustices at work is exhausting. It’s something women have had to do for far too long. But we must continue standing up for ourselves, our fellow women, and other groups who people consistently underestimate at work and in life.

Just remember, you worked incredibly hard to be here. You earned your way into your role. No snide comment or incorrect assumption will take that away.

Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want." Through in-person training and online courses via LinkedIn Learning, Selena teaches professionals how to be fierce self-advocates and carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Follow her on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn.