Last week I wrote about an interview where I was asked: “Now, this won’t screen you out but I understand the agency you’ve come through helps mums and dads get back into work after having children. Looking at you, I’m assuming you don’t have children, do you? Or any plans?”
The reaction from the article was to say the least, interesting. The outpouring of stories and the support from many women was enormous. However, there were many other comments that reared their head, that were in favour of the question, with some almost aggressive at the idea of raising the question as an issue. In fact one commenter said it was okay to make jokes about whether the woman was finished having children in an interview and that having a mother on the payroll was burdensome.
After reading through the comments, it was apparent that all the negative ones followed the same narrative: Women (whether you’re a mother or not) are costly and burdensome; sexism happens, get used to it because it’s not going to change; and companies hiring women are taking a risk and are the real victims.
What surprised me the most was these comments not only came from men, but from women, too. If we’re being sexist against our own gender, we’re not only feeding sexism in other people but ourselves, not only impacting women in the workplace now, but in the future.
Despite the fact that no-one is allowed to ask this terribly sexist question during an interview, companies still do. As women, not only are we expecting (and fear) being asked, we’re judging other women by asking it, embedding the notion that women are costly, burdensome and a risk to hire.
Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I should tell the company or recruiter, let alone write an article about it. Why? Because I was worried that I would be labelled as “bitter” amongst other things, which would lead to the agency not wanting to work with me again or even worse, affecting my job search. More often than not, when a woman complains about something, particularly in a working environment, they are labelled, avoided and gossiped about. This shames the woman, dismisses the offence and reduces the likelihood of that person, or any other woman, of reporting similar incidences again.
But I wrote about it because I wanted to break the cycle. Since the incident I have written to the company I interviewed at and informed the agency. I even hosted a poll to find out if this was just a one-off and it turns out, this behaviour is rife, with 18% of respondents citing they had been asked this question (none of whom were men), and the stories that came with it were even more shocking.
It was clear that I wasn’t in the wrong, it was the interviewer, and I wanted to share my experience because I shouldn’t feel responsible or guilty for someone else’s behaviour. The fact that I do not have children doesn’t make me unwomanly, just like it doesn’t make me a risk or a potential cost because people think I “should” have children.
Raising an issue such as workplace sexism is not “whingeing”, it’s taking a proactive approach that many people do not feel comfortable doing in fear of being labelled or dismissed. It’s taking a stand in the face of discrimination and no-one should be condemned for doing so.
To the people who wondered why I got so enraged about that question, it’s because it’s not just one question and it’s not just one interview. It’s the start of poor excuses and flimsy management which causes people to overlook or explain these comments as, “he’s just a friendly guy,” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way”.
When it comes to workplace sexism, this is the tip of the iceberg and only one example of what women face everyday. The interview is your first real experience of a company, if they’re ok to ask that, what else do they feel is acceptable to ask or do?
This one question creates a foundation for future behaviour, from a question in an interview, to squeezing oh-so-slowly past in the stationery cupboard to groping at the office Christmas party.
Sexism isn’t normal, it’s outdated. We cannot stamp out sexism all at once, it’s not possible, however, we can all take a stand by sharing our experiences and campaigning for change.
The company I interviewed at has since launched an investigation, and the agency who represented me have supported me. So it turns out, that by raising a problem, something can be done and change can be made, one voice at a time.