Tackling gender barriers in the workplace requires many efforts. For example, researchers recently created a new tool to measure gender bias in the workplace, which can help organizations improve their practices.
But no need to be a CEO or an HR leader to start tackling these big issues. You can make a difference by becoming aware of your own unconscious gender biases as well as situations where unconscious preconceptions play out at work.
However, the challenge with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious in the first place. Blatant discrimination or harassment is easier to identify. Day-to-day workplace gender bias can be a lot more nuanced and take the form of seemingly harmless interactions.
For example, it can look like asking a female coworker a question that seems innocent but that you wouldn’t automatically ask a male colleague. So to help you start doing your part towards combating systemic sexism, here are five things you should never ask your female coworkers.
1. Do you want kids?
Women are twice as likely to be asked about having kids by their coworkers, according to a new study on potentially uncomfortable questions around fertility and conception.
This is problematic for many reasons: First, women are still fighting for paid maternity leave and often forced to return to work very shortly after giving birth — in the U.S., only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid family leave in 2016.
They also face the pressure of having to justify whether they’ll be able to keep up with their responsibilities once they have children or wonder whether they’ll be passed over for promotions because of family obligations.
On the other hand, men are rarely questioned about the burden of balancing a career and family. So asking anything that has to do with having children to a female coworker is a loaded question. Not to mention that it’s potentially insensitive — some people may be trying to conceive and struggling with medical issues or not want kids at all.
2. How are you feeling about your workload now that you’re pregnant?
On that note, pregnant women in the workplace also face sometimes innocuous but uncomfortable questions. If a woman needs to adjust her workload for medical reasons related to her pregnancy, she will.
But if she’s simply pregnant and going about her day-to-day tasks, asking her this kind of thing can imply that you think she is now less capable of performing her professional duties. And she might already be feeling the stress of being overlooked for new projects or career advancement opportunities now that she is expecting a baby.
Pregnancy-related discrimination is real and still happens, so it’s important to consider whether the way you are treating your pregnant coworker is affected by unconscious biases.
3. Why don’t you smile more?
This question, which can easily make the blood of any woman on the receiving end of it boil, is the subject of many memes and online discussions around gender bias.
Yet it’s still commonly asked: A 2020 Personal Capital study revealed it’s the most common form of microaggression women face at work, with 41% of respondents confirming they have been asked to smile more.
Telling a woman to smile is problematic because it’s a double-standard that implies women owe others the adjustment of their natural demeanor. It’s also about being perceived as more pleasant, which highlights the disparity between the way we perceive men versus women at work when they exhibit the same exact traits.
For example, assertive men are often respected and admired while women often feel the need to tone themselves down at work in order to be well-liked and avoid being seen as bossy or difficult.
4. Could you help me out with this team-building project?
There is nothing wrong with asking a female coworker for a favor, but it’s important to be hyper-aware of the context.
Are you asking her for help with something outside of her job description? Is it a project that requires things like admin work or people-oriented tasks? You might want to hold your tongue.
If you thought of her for the favor in question because of gender preconceptions such as the fact that women tend to be more organized or nurturing, the question can carry harmful unconscious biases.
5. Anything where you assume her role or level of responsibility
Almost 40% of women in the Personal Capital study mentioned above reported being underestimated, such as having a female doctor mistaken for a nurse.
Being a nurse is an amazing profession. But when you’ve hustled your way through med school and your male counterpart doesn’t get mistaken for a nurse, it’s definitely unfair to be on the receiving end of that kind of assumption.
So you’re about to ask a professional woman a question and you’ve already made assumptions about her job title of level of responsibility, stop yourself. This form of bias is so pervasive it doesn’t only affect women in male-dominated industries — it’s also about perceived level of competence.