9 Things NOT to Say to Women Coworkers


Bell, Lee, Vazquez

Before you make that “harmless” little comment to the woman in the next office, take a look at things women leaders tell us are absolute no-no’s in the workplace.

1. Terms of “endearment” such as “sweetie,” “hon” or “cutie.”

This is when a term of endearment becomes anything but endearing. In the workplace, such language can be interpreted as degrading or belittling.

2. “You’ve lost weight” or “You look so much better.”

Women as well as men may enjoy compliments on their looks. But saying this to a female coworker or executive at an inappropriate time can make female coworkers feel as though their skills and work are not taken seriouslythat male counterparts are focusing only on their looks. Comments on weight and/or physical appearance should not be made to anyone in a business setting, as they imply a level of personal familiarity. They also suggest the person was fat or looked bad before. And the person might have an undisclosed illness, which would obviously make the comment even more rude.

3. Any kind of sexual comment.

Not only do sexual innuendos and derogatory terms like “honey” make the female employee on the receiving end feel embarrassed and offended, they also create a problem for the rest of the workplace environment. Think your top women employees will stick around if they know a company does not promote and enforce equal respect.

4. “Is it that time of the month” or “She’s so emotional.”

There’s a preconceived notion that women cannot handle stress and tend to get too “personally invested” in their work. Dr. Ella Bell, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, speaks very passionately about her work. As such, she immediately took offense when a senior male colleague said to her: “You sure wear your heart on your sleeve.”

That “ticked me off because I always try to be concrete. I interpreted it as my work wasn’t making intellectual sense,” recalls Bell. “I did pull him over on the side afterward and explained how it made me feel and that it was inappropriate.” Bell notes, however, that she was hesitant to speak up at first as she did not want to draw more negative attention.

When a female executive is forceful or aggressive, she can be received in a negative way, but 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. 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 Bell suggests that women find evidence of a male employee behaving the same way, which can help generate awareness for this common stereotype of women.

5. “You aren’t as aggressive with your subordinates as you should be. You need to be more forceful and tougher.”

“These are code words for being more ‘manly,'” says Barbara Frankel, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of DiversityInc. “There are many different successful styles to manage people. What matters is results and that the manager’s style is inclusive and in keeping with the corporate culture.”

6. “You only got the job because you’re a woman.”

Suggesting to a woman that she’s excelled in her career because of gender is disrespectful. But unfortunately, Bell says this is a common occurrence, and that it’s common for those in the academic world to feel they must “justify” picking a woman over a man. “When a woman gets tenure you’ll hear othersincluding womensay, ‘She really wasn’t that good but they really wanted to keep her,’ or, ‘She shouldn’t have made it but ,'” explains Bell. “You never hear that with the men.”

“After a while it rolls off your back. Your skin toughens so that when you hear comments, you can then approach the situation in a constructive way,” she says.

Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO of WEConnect International, a nonprofit fostering global business empowerment for women, says that globally there exists a perception that women do not have business savvythis includes the ability to grow a company to a significant size and be a very successful business owner. “The public perception creates a cultural barrier for women who do not consider business ownership [or senior management] as a viable option, and it can also make it harder for women to get the support they need from their families and communities,” she explains.

To change this dynamic, Vazquez stresses the need to promote women’s success stories in business, including how they did it, what barriers they overcame, and the impact it has had on their lives and the lives of their families, communities and industry sector.

7. “Do you really want that promotion You’ll never see your kids.”

There still exists an unspoken belief that a woman executive will not be able to put in the same hours as a man. People assume she won’t be able to work more than 40 hours per week if she has a family or she’ll have to keep her children, not work, as the priority. This is a fatal error in judgment, especially for companies looking to improve gender diversity among their senior executives.

Don’t be quick to assume that a woman employee doesn’t value or want to pursue a high-profile executive career because she has (or wants) children at home. In fact, a woman who can simultaneously manage the demands of leading a team with the responsibilities of a busy family life demonstrates exceptional skill.

Similarly, you should never ask a woman, “Do you want to keep working now that you’re [married, divorced, pregnant, your husband/partner is relocating, your husband/partner is retiring]” according to an anonymous female executive. You wouldn’t ask a man if he wanted to keep working if his family status changed or his significant other’s job status changed. But many bosses think it totally appropriate to ask women the same thing.

8. “You do that so well for a girl.”

Even jokingly, the phrase implies that women are inferior to men and reinforces dated stereotypes. It also discourages many young women from actively pursuing interests in traditionally male-dominated industries, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Any conversation that implies that a womanor any individual from any groupis “less than” is inappropriate. For an inspiring story, read about Wells Fargo Executive Vice President Michelle Lee’s experience as the only Black woman in her bank’s leadership-training program (www.DiversityInc.com/michelle-lee).

9. “Are you pregnant” or “When are you due”

While your intentions here may just be based on goodwill and a little curiosity, this can be a sensitive question to ask ANY woman, at work or outside of the office. Assume it’s none of your business unless a coworker decides to bring it up on her own. If you are discussing families and children, you may ask, “Do you have children” but it’s up to the other person how much they want to reveal and when.

MORE THINGS NOT TO SAY:

  • “You look thin. You should eat more.”
  • Calling your boss or a snarky female coworker the B-word.
  • “You aren’t one of those feminists, are you”
  • “Why aren’t you married yet”
  • “Men and women are treated equally. What are you complaining about”
  • “You’re being irrational.”

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