The information contained in this article is not legal advice. Rather, the article contains my own thoughts and experiences, as well as some inconvenient truths. In my experience, all employers will try to uncover the status of your private life. Here are some of the conclusions I came to.
How to handle inappropriate interview questions
Are you planning on getting pregnant any time soon?
This question is the one you should ask yourself (and if you’re over 35, you should also know the answer to it).
It’s also OK if your OB/GYN asks you this question.
However, it’s certainly not OK for your mother-in-law, your work colleagues, or your future boss stick their noses in your business.
Women are humans and humans take leaves of absence from time to time – usually during bad occasions, such as small operations or toothaches. However, from time to time, it’s due to a new baby and maternity leave.
But wait, are women who are pregnant (or planning to become pregnant) not entitled to the same employment prospects as anyone else?
Sure… but, only in theory.
Employers hate the fact that women produce babies, and even top-employers will try to counteract this simple, biological reality any possible way, mostly by discriminating against women who are of childbearing age even before they get hired.
Other ways they do this is by offering crazy things like egg freezing for those who already work,or by simply applying old-fashioned social pressure at work to make women feel guilty and irresponsible for becoming mothers, thus, making them stay with their newborn(s)for a crazy short period of time.
American woman go back to work just four, eight, or 12 weeks after giving birth. In Europe, at least six months of paid leave is the norm and several countries grant more than three years. So how come that expert in major institutions all read the same scientific evidence on what’s best for the babies and breastfeeding mothers and yet arrive to so different conclusions?
In my experience, all employers will try to uncover the status of your private life.
No matter if they’re the world’s best companies, or (like I had most of the times), heads of research departments who have nothing but 12-month contracts to offer to their postdocs – they will all go above and beyond decent behaviour to extract this important piece of information:
- Why would you move to a new city? (To live together with your partner – red flag.)
- Why is it that you don’t have children yet? (Maybe you’re waiting for a good and secure job – red flag.)
- What are you passionate about? How important are your hobbies to you? (Not very important; a mother type – red flag.) Etc.
The most annoying thing is that this kind of questioning generally starts off innocently and in the form of light conversation, meaning thatyou could easily be under the impression that it’s an icebreaker or just a funny thing that your future boss says.
These are some examples of what I personally was asked at some of the top research institutions in Germany (University Hospital, Max-Planck Institute, Bayer Healthcare):
- Oh, you look so young! Surly you’re not married yet?
- I love children! My youngest one is just two months old…(you fill in the blanks)
- Don’t you miss your home country? I read that you have large families over there; that must be nice?
- And my favorite one (I was 31 and interviewed for a postdoc position in an internationally renowned research institute): I shouldn’t be asking you this, but, what are your family plans?
Maybe you’re lucky and think such questions are shocking and rare. However, for most women across all education levels, they are a bitter reality.
The thing is, inappropriate questions are, in theory, discouraged… but not expressly prohibited (I’m now speaking about situation in Germany), which leaves a lot of space for manipulation.
This means: while asking applicants about their marital and parental status, the law is not strictly violated, but the answers to these questions will, undoubtedly, form bias and influence a selection decision.
How to avoid answering personal questions?
For the most part, it depends on how desperate you are to get or keep that job.
The easiest way to fight back is, of course, to remind the interviewer that you are not obligated by law to answer the question.
But, this will of course not help in building trust between the two of you.
Personally, I have also never found the strength to say this and this I do regret it a bit.
What else can you do?
Be honest and reveal your true maternal and parental status along with your future intentions.
In truth, however, this strategy will work ONLY if you’re a top-expert being interviewed for a position in which there is a scarcity of skilled people like you.
The reality is, this is the situation that only a very few women will face and is grossly disproportionate to the number of women who need a job.
According to FindLaw website, there a few more possible answers you can give when asked a question you should not have been asked on the first place:
1. Kindly ask the relevance of the question to the position: “Why do you want to know that?”(This may help put some more decent employers back to the fence.)
2. Address the underlying concern behind the question:“Is there a problem with your employees who have families?”
3. Say things to help win some time in which you can steer the conversation in another direction: “I’m not sure what you mean? Can you please repeat the question?” (Do things to make the other side feel uncomfortable.)
There is no magic answer when it comes to this delicate topic, but I only wish to remind you that this concern is very real and that you should have a few answers ready day and night, from the time you get your first job until menopause.
I might be a pessimist on this particular issue, but I don’t think that the reality of discriminating women because they can and do have babies will change any time soon.
My two cents.
Supplements to support fertility and egg quality: