The illegal interview mistake women say companies are making

New data from InHerSight suggests hiring managers are asking questions without malintent or even awareness of wrongdoing—because of what we’ve all learned to talk about with women.


We all know—or think we know—the questions that are inappropriate to ask during an interview. Questions about race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, and parental status are all illegal, according to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws.

Yet in August, when my company InHerSight surveyed 2,500 women about whether they’d ever been asked about marital and parental status while interviewing for a job, hiring managers did not get a clean bill of health.

Twenty-five percent of respondents said they’d been asked whether they have children and 14% whether they plan on having kids. Twenty-eight percent were asked if they are married, and 12% if they plan on getting married.

Considering measures surrounding interview protocol are put in place to protect women and minorities from discrimination in the workforce, this data is worrisome. Some of those women who said yes in our poll might not have received job offers because they plan on having kids one day. No woman should have to wonder whether her desire to have children is affecting her career prospects. Pregnancy discrimination is a real problem.

Still, even while acknowledging the implications of this data, a part of me understood when we pulled these stats how the conversation could happen without malintent or even awareness of wrongdoing—because families and children are what we’ve all learned to talk about with women.

Romance, interpersonal relationships, and nurturing are still considered to be go-to topics for connecting with and getting to know women. That’s why women’s magazines dedicate a large portion of their content to articles on dating, marriage, and parenthood. It’s also why society continues to cast romantic comedies and “chick lit” in a feminine light.

Let me be the first to say there’s nothing wrong with conversations about love, relationships, and motherhood. Your family, your lovers are, after all, a part of your life. Women are and should be proud of these accomplishments.

But by leaning on these personal details in the workforce, especially during the interview process, we deny women the chance to talk about other areas of success—namely professional ones.

What InHerSight’s data told me wasn’t that companies or hiring managers are purposefully discriminating against women (though some are, and that’s wrong), but that we need to rethink how effectively we’re using interview time to assess prospective hires.

There’s plenty of time after a woman joins your team to ask her about her family or whether she has a partner. That’s a conversation to be had over lunch, casually in the breakroom, or at a company retreat. But in those hiring conversations, you have only a few hours to understand what professional experience a woman possesses and how her skills might benefit your company. Even if her love story inspired The Notebook, that’s not going to help you implement new software or a project management strategy.

Easy, professional getting-to-know-you questions sound like this:

Tell me about a time you went above and beyond to make sure your job was done and done well.
Who is the most effective manager you’ve had, and why was their style so valuable to you?
What kind of metrics or personal assessments do you use to measure your own success?
Then there’s the ever-popular, “Tell me about yourself.” This is more valuable in professional small talk than you may think. In this elevator pitch, you hear for the first time what your potential employee thinks are her MVP qualities. Listen to how she tailors her response to your company and how, when given the opportunity, she drives the conversation about herself.

If personal details of her life are included, wonderful. That may tell you about the benefits she’s looking for from an employer and how you can best position yourself to attract talent like her. In other words, it gives you the opportunity to see how you can pair your company’s strengths with her strengths to make a mutually beneficial match.

Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight.

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