Things NEVER to Say to Women Executives

Sometimes, a term of endearment can be anything but endearing.

“I had this manager who … started referring to me as ‘honey,’” recalls May Snowden, former chief diversity officer for both Starbucks and Eastman Kodak Co. (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies), who is now president and CEO of Snowden & Associates, Inc. “[It was] when I took my first director position. I was in a male-dominated job in the telecommunications industry and I did not want to embarrass him in front of his peers, so I invited him to my office and indicated that ‘I won’t call you sweetie if you won’t call me honey.’ We had that little conversation and he stopped. He was really embarrassed, [and because] he calls his wife, his daughters and other women ‘honey’, he did not even think about it.” Audio clip.

“We all come to the table with biases and histories and upbringings in life that give us a perspective that may have 20, 30 years behind it,” says Sherry Nolan, vice president of diversity and organizational capabilities at Pepsi Bottling Group, No. 18 on The 2009 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. “The truth of the matter is that we all come to the table with different perspectives, and what we’d rather have is folks saying, ‘Hey, how do I address that?’ or ‘How would you like me to think about this?’ or ‘What should I call you?’ We use this notion that we may stumble a little bit or not get it right the first time, but with more practice, the more authentic dialog we’ll have with diversity in our organization, the more productive and engaged our people will be.”

So to make sure there aren’t some unconscious biases informing that harmless comment you are about to make to the woman in the next office, take a look at eight things you should never say to a woman executive or coworker.

Any kind of sexual comment

At a previous job, a supervisor approached me and jokingly said, “I’ll give you a dollar for five minutes alone in the copy room.” I was shocked, embarrassed and utterly offended. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel at liberty to speak up, so I simply walked away.

“It’s pure ignorance,” says Karen Brown, former chief diversity officer for Rockwell Collins, No. 42 on The DiversityInc Top 50. “The best way to deal with these things is to consider it as a perfect awareness opportunity to teach that individual something that they never would have had the chance to learn before then.”

Brown says offensive comments like these are a problem for more than just the employee on the receiving end. “You’re going to create an environment where people struggle and therefore lack the freedom to be innovative and comfortable,” she says. “When you remove those barriers and create a culture that allows people to flourish, you get better engagement, better retention and better results.”

“You don’t really want that promotion. You’ll never see your kids.”

“There is that preconceived notion that a woman cannot work more than the 40 hours per week, especially if she has a family,” says Brown.

Don’t assume that a woman’s career isn’t as important to her because she has children at home. Her children may be what’s driving her to excel to her highest potential.

Brown adds, “She may in fact want that promotion just as much as her male counterpart, but she’s balancing family life and at the same time balancing leading a team.”

“You’ll get the job because you’re a woman” or “You must be the token woman”

Suggesting to a female coworker or executive that she is where she is because of gender is nothing short of disrespectful. It diminishes that woman’s experience in the field and expertise as a leader. It also indicates, to a woman from an underrepresented group, that she was selected not only because she is a female but also because she is Black, Latina or Asian.


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“I had a journalist ask me, ‘Don’t you think you got this job because you’re a Hispanic woman?’” recalls Ana Mollinedo Mims, former managing director of The Hunting Ridge Group. “I said, ‘Did you read my bio before you came to interview me? Did you look at my résumé? Chances are that [being Latina] could have been the weighing factor that tipped me over all the other candidates.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Are you OK with that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. I don’t care what gets me in the door. Because what’s going to keep me in the door is what I bring to the table.’”

“What’s the matter, is it that time of the month?”

When a female executive is forceful or aggressive, she is often received in a negative way, while a man in the same position is perceived as doing his job. One of the ways that negativity can be expressed is by attributing the behavior to hormonal changes. While this may seem like an obvious statement, it is never appropriate to comment on a female coworker’s menstrual cycle or hormones. But how should a woman deal with the situation if she is the recipient of such a comment?

“I use the technique of question, listen and message,” says Brown. “I would find evidence where a male counterpart behaves the same way and then ask and probe why [the employee who made the comment] thinks that way when the evidence is the same. In that moment in time when you’re able to show evidence, that’s probably the first time they see it that way.”

“You’re very attractive [or pretty, or beautiful, etc.]“

Although women as well as men may enjoy a compliment on their looks, saying this to a female coworker or executive can leave the coworker feeling marginalized–as if her looks are more important than her skills or what she has to say.

“It is that feeling to the receiver that the listener isn’t paying attention to what she has to say, [and] therefore, it doesn’t matter how crisp, robust and powerful her message is; the impact to the listener is diminished because they’re focused on the external beauty,” says Brown. Audio clip.

“You look great for your age” or “Do you use Botox?”

Let’s face it: This country is addicted to the notion of the fountain of youth. With new age-defying procedures and potions being touted at every turn, there’s a significant amount of pressure on women (and even men these days) to keep a youthful appearance. Especially inappropriate in the workplace, a woman’s age should never be discussed unless she brings it up first. And if you suspect her great look is the result of a surgical procedure, keep it to yourself, unless your coworker volunteers that information to you.

“You do that so well for a girl.”

Even if said in a joking way, the phrase implies that women are inferior to men, and the recipient may not receive it with the best of humor. “The reference [is] not appropriate. That’s basically a demeaning term,” says Snowden. “[It indicates] you’re less than the fellows because you are a woman. Any conversation that implies you are ‘less than’ is inappropriate.”

“When are you due?”

If you are not absolutely certain that a woman is expecting, do not, I repeat, do not ask this question. By far one of the most insulting things you could possibly say to a woman who is not pregnant, this question could leave you with your foot in your mouth and an enemy for life.

“I think it’s inappropriate to say anything unless you get into a conversation about family,” advises Snowden. “For example, I may say something about my family, children or something and then may ask them if they have children. They may say, ‘No, I don’t have children, but I’m expecting,’ or they may not say anything about them expecting. I think it’s very dangerous to get into personal kinds [of] things like that without someone letting you know it’s OK first.”

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7 Comments

  • Alexander Thomas

    I remember accepting an Assistant Controller/Cost Accountant position with a large manufacturing company. One of my peers said to me in front of others, “You’re only here because you are Black.”
    I responded, “Yes. And you’re ONLY here because you are White.” That was my “white priviledge” teaching moment.

    • NATIONWYDE

      Good one. I’ve had to say similar things in the military and the fire service! Said matter of factly, it catches them off guard and becomes a teachable moment.

  • Robert E. Repp

    We will make progress when the differences between men and women and the attraction which some women command because of their looks or appeal is not reacted to but accepted and embraced. The new gauge should be: Is the man trying to be demeaning or marginalizing or seeking an involvement? robert.

  • Actually, what I don’t like is the TITLE of this article: WOMEN Executives. I hate when “woman” or “women” is used as an adjective. One never says “men executives.” It should be “female executives” (or “male executives”).

  • I mean, I guess that manners are required in the office — but really, why the HELL is the onus on the women to be polite and use it as a teaching moment?

  • Robert, what do you mean by guage? Are you suggesting that intent is more important than it’s impact? What a man means doesn’t make a woman feel any less degraded, dehumanized, or marginalized by a thoughtless and insensitive comment. I agree with the advice above: NEVER make sexual remarks towards women at work.

    As for the attractiveness of women, it’s very telling that men are able to ignore the fact that women in the workplace may find THEM attractive and sexually desirable. The “issue” is always framed around negotiating male desire as if women’s bodies are a sexual commodity we are just working around rather than respecting as equals.

  • Debra Pekin

    Julia, the onus is on the person who has the perspecasity to provide the teaching moment. Alexander who also comments in this list illustrates quite readily that men have equal opportunity to have stupid things said to them. The question is, are we prepared emotionally to teach in the moment, and not just lash back in anger, or stew in silence?

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