Things Not to Say to Women in the Workplace

5 min Article
That snide remark on her lipstick or work-life balance may not be as “harmless” as you thought. Read on to know what NOT to say to female co-workers.
Things Not to Say to Women in the Workplace

Man: I wish I knew what women wanted.

Woman: We just want…

Man: It’s so hard to understand.

Woman: Well, if you would just listen, then…

Man: So mysterious.

A similar post went viral on the internet a few years ago. It invited discussions on how women were treated in the workplace. For instance, their ideas are often recycled and presented by male colleagues in meetings and their sentences cut short. While the “harmless” sexist jokes and jibes may invite a roar of laughter from the table, neither are they respectful, nor productive.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, here is what not to say to women in the workplace.

“Women are more hardworking than men.”

This is often used as an excuse to cover up for the tardiness of a male colleague’s job. “Don't pay too much attention to him and continue doing your work. After all, women are more hardworking than men.” On the surface, it may sound like a compliment. Look closely and you’ll find that it’s just a way to brush things under the carpet.

To avoid employees slacking at work, this sentence becomes a tool used by managers to encourage women to keep working hard, sometimes at the cost of their wellbeing. Instead of pushing women to work harder and be overwhelmed by work, pull up their male co-workers to do their jobs properly.

“Stop playing the ‘safety’ card to get special treatment.”

Of all the bizarre things said to women in the workplace, this one is perhaps the most insensitive. Crimes against women are nothing new. Cases of molestation and harassment occur frequently. Hence, if your female employees put in requests to leave for home early or deny night shifts due to safety issues, it is for self-preservation and nothing else.

Keep in mind, nobody wants to be a victim of abuse. So, instead of chiding them for looking out for themselves, offer cab services for late night shifts and shuttle buses or cars to drop them off at the nearest bus or metro station.

“Oh, you look pretty today. You must be going on a date!”

This is another sentence that might be intended as a compliment but is one of the biggest signs of male chauvinism at work. Commenting on a co-worker’s physical appearance is considered unprofessional. Further, implying that someone has ‘dressed up’ for a date not just impinges on personal territory, but is also reductive.

In some cases, commenting on a co-worker’s attire by saying “That shirt fits you well” or “You’re wearing lipstick! Must be a special occasion,” can be seen as using sexist language in the workplace and harassment.

“Is it that time of the month?”

Another prime example of sexist language in the workplace, not only is it offensive, but also dismisses the reaction of a female co-worker as an ‘overreaction’. This sentence is usually brought up when a female colleague expresses anger or frustration at a situation or towards a fellow colleague. It is assumed that their reaction is solely because of the hormonal changes brought on by menstruation.

This should probably top the list on “What not to say to female co-workers.” Contrary to popular belief, it’s not funny and can be used as a legitimate reason to file a harassment case in the office. Instead of discrediting their feelings about a situation, try to understand what’s bothering them and find a solution.

“You should smile more.”

This is one of the oldest forms of micro-aggression in the workplace and one of the most glaring signs of male chauvinism at work. Women are often asked to smile more during presentations or simply while doing their work, whereas their male colleagues are not expected to constantly display any signs of cheerfulness. There is an expectation that to be well-liked, they must smile and seem “less aggressive”.

Hence, this snide remark can make female employees lose a sense of control and feel undervalued. Not smiling doesn’t translate to unhappiness. They could just be focusing on the job at hand, instead of maintaining a curve on their lips. Unless the job demands smiling for a camera, don’t try to control a woman’s facial expressions.

Terms like “honey, sweetie, baby.”

Sexist language in the workplace is detrimental to a colleague’s self-worth and mental wellbeing. Phrases like, “Babe, listen to me,” or “Come on, honey” are signs of male chauvinism at work and must be discouraged at all costs. Your colleague has a name. Use that to address her instead of terms that belittle her or her intelligence.

Such terms do nothing, except make female employees feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. In case you or someone in your team has been known to do this, they need an intervention, or perhaps a crash course in how to behave with female employees. These words are not affectionate or endearing.

How do you balance work and kids?

Hollywood celebrities and former couple, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck are parents to three kids. A few years ago, Garner reported that while attending a red-carpet event, she was repeatedly asked how she manages her kids and work while her ex-husband, Affleck wasn’t. If that doesn’t shed light on sexist language in the workplace, what will?

Amongst all the things said to women in the workplace, the biggest disparity is visible in how it is automatically assumed that women are the only ones who need to maintain a work-life balance. Men and women make equal parts of a family with equal responsibilities. Comments like these create a company culture that is discriminatory and hostile to women.

Although several organizations are working towards creating inclusive workplaces that have strict policies to discourage any kind of discrimination, we have a long way to go. Are there any other sentences you feel shouldn’t be used in the workplace while speaking to women? Tell us in the comments! 

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Prakriti Bhat

Prakriti Bhat

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