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Asking These Interview Questions To Female Candidates? Please Stop!

Posted: January 26, 2015

Asking personal interview questions to female candidates is common and seen as ‘normal’, although they are neither useful nor fair.

As a woman navigating the workforce you still come across situations where gender matters; starting with the interview questions that are posed by companies. Some of these questions seem really ‘innocent’ but they create gender imbalances in the hiring process.

Questions that tend towards personal choices and decisions serve as demotivating factors for female job aspirants as it tips the balance against them, whether asked knowingly or otherwise.

Most women at work find themselves repeatedly facing personal questions during job interviews. Sometimes the interviewer seems to be keener on the personal situation of the female applicant than her qualifications. There is almost no limit to the age group of women who are at the receiving end of this gender discrimination. Some recent conversations with peers led me to ponder on this issue further; here are some of their stories with names changed on request.

Carol* a 29 year old was planning to re-joining the workforce after a career break she took in order to start her family. Once she felt ready to get back to her career she was thrown away by some of the questions that were repeatedly posed to her. Even though she was qualified and had great references from the companies she had worked at in the past, her interviews tended to fester around her child care plans. Some even suggested that she should not look for work till her baby was 3 years old. Personal decisions and issues have no place in a job interview as they lead to discriminatory practises and are also great demotivating factors.

Akanksha*, a mother of two school going children was interested in pursuing a job posting abroad, for which she was qualified. During the interview process, she was asked questions regarding her kids, her child care plans, etc. She was finally rejected for the post on the premise that she is needed at home with her kids. While it is a company’s prerogative to judge her based on her past work and the skills she possesses, surely her personal life and life choices for her children and herself are her own business?

While it is a company’s prerogative to judge her based on her past work and the skills she possesses, surely her personal life and life choices for her children and herself are her own business?

Kirtana* was a fresh MBA entrant into the workforce. She was selected on the basis of a rigorous summer training assignment but was stumped when she was asked by the company’s Head of Human Resources about her marriage plans. The premise was that since she was ‘of marriageable age’, she would marry and quit the company in the near future. Furthermore she was sensitized to not quitting the company before a period of two years citing marriage as a reason.  On the other hand her male peers were not asked any such questions. The company at the time had an attrition of 40% and had a predominately male workforce. So clearly women marrying and quitting was not their primary reason for attrition.

The company at the time had an attrition of 40% and had a predominately male workforce. So clearly women marrying and quitting was not their primary reason for attrition.

Sanjana* was hugely demotivated by questions from prospective employers about what her husband did for a living. After asking her about her past work and qualifications, her interviewer and prospective employer started delving into her husband’s job and qualifications thus benchmarking her standard of living. It started getting uncomfortable when the conversation tended to whether her newly married husband would let her continue to work and what her home priorities would be like.

Time to stop discriminatory hiring practices

These questions that inquire about marital status, child rearing plans, child care and age are all considered illegal question in the US and a few other Western countries as it is seen that it leads to gender discrimination. Some international companies that do not want to lose out on bright, hardworking women from their work force, train interviewers on appropriate and inappropriate questions that can be asked during the interview process.

A survey by a law firm Slater and Gordon showed that 40% of the 500 managers they surveyed would prefer to hire a man than a woman between the ages of 20 and 30 or in other words, child-bearing age. A third of the managers also felt that women were not as effective in their jobs after they came back from maternity leave. Some managers admitted that they would try to meander away from the “costs” incurred by maternity leave by hiring male candidates.

There are strong anti-discriminatory laws for female applicants governed by both federal and state laws in the US. Examples of illegal questions include:

  • What is your marital status? Is your surname your maiden or married name? Should we call you Ms/Mrs/Miss?
  • How old are you? (Or any such questions that hint at age.)
  • Questions pertaining to pregnancy or future child-bearing plans
  • Are you currently on birth control pills or undergoing fertility treatments?
  • How many children do you have and at what ages? What are your child care plans for them?
  • Where does your husband work and what are his qualifications?

(To know more about illegal questions and anti-discriminatory laws in the US, read here.)

Many of these questions are routinely asked in job interviews to female applicants in India as interviewers consider them ‘normal’ or have not been sensitized otherwise. It is high time that companies in India avoid questions that lead to discriminatory hiring or firing decisions based on gender, race, religion and disabilities to have an inclusive culture.

On the other hand women who are faced with these questions in their job interviews should know that they are not obliged to answer these questions. Some of these questions might come up as small talk but during a hiring process, it can lead to discriminatory decisions.

I would suggest that women try to not disclose personal information in their interviews and emails or conversations during the interview process. If faced with such questions, you could either ask the relevance of the question to the position or state firmly that these questions are uncomfortable for you as they are personal and volunteer information of relevance such as your work record or qualifications instead.

In India the workforce is only recently seeing the entry of women as two generations ago the reality of women in India was different. Hence a lot of attitudinal changes are highly due in India when it comes to levelling the playing field for women.

*Names changed on request.

Concept image via Shutterstock

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  1. Interesting article. But the reforms must be made in the society before the employers be asked to change. A lot of my friends (including me) had to quit our jobs when getting married. It is always the girl who is expected to move her job location in a marriage and some families do not want the girl to work after marriage. In fact if a girl does not want to move, the marriage proposal gets cancelled and i’ve seen how the boy’s friends and family comment about the girl.

  2. Hi…this is Very Informative and thought provoking article. I hope in India also there must be some strict rules to be applied so that there won’t be any discrimination of gender happen..Thank you

  3. The problem is that some questions can be better framed to get rid of any personal elements but interviewers are not aware of the gender bias. Also in India the British style photos on resumes requirement is very silly. Who cares what I look like. If it is a job req then post it in the rules.

    1. This jobs requires late evening calls with Foreign clients. Will you be able to stay past 7 pm some times? instead of asking “Do you have to pick up kids from school?”

    2. 1 day per week will be out of town/ client visits. Are you available for travel at short notice? instead of asking “will your husband mind if you travel?”

    3. Can you be here for morning 8am meetings? instead of asking “where do you live?” (US resumes do not need address)

    So many questions show the ignorance of the hiring managers and the whole culture should be changed by constant training.

  4. So true…but the fact remains that this thinking is so deeply ingrained that even after training i doubt if the mindset of the people change..while for some it may for others it may not..they may say something on the surface but their actions ( for example internal reviews, promotions etc) may say otherwise…a girl is discriminated against by the society and judged all the time be it for personal or professional reasons , no matter the age.

  5. I am planning to resume my career…but it seems will have to start the physiological preparation first.. Self respect and feminist in me is going to take longer than usual to fetch the desired work. Thoughtful and well put.

  6. I have personal experience. I went for Assistant Professor interview in an University of my home state. One professor in the board commented that I would not last for long in the small town, because I may get married to NRI and can shift abroad.

  7. I trained and work in the US in a male-dominated field. This bias exists even in the US where there is almost no concept of maternity leave. While it is technically illegal to ask candidates their family plans, people tend to ask them in roundabout ways (such as asking the secretary who arranged your interview schedule to make small talk with you about your family). I have always been asked about the number of children, and people get concerned when I say I have one (they automatically assume I am “high risk” for going on maternity leave). I have also been directly asked about childcare arrangements which annoys me. I agree that employers should just spell out requirements as such (eg. early morning and late evening meetings, travel requirements etc.). We women can figure out whether that is acceptable to us, and if so, how to take care of things at home.

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