Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I'm currently the youngest member of my team and the only female non-manager within my team. I'm six months pregnant and I'm the breadwinner of the house while my husband is finishing out his MBA program.
My all-male co-workers have started bombarding me with doubt when I mention that I will be returning after my maternity leave. I have communicated my exact return time and intention multiple times, and am always met with: "Well, when you have a kid everything changes," "You're a childless person pretending to be an expert on children," "All the chemical in a woman's body when that kid hits the ground means that you stop being a separate entity," etc. In short, I'm now beyond annoyed and feel harassed.
I feel like HR within my company is there to protect only upper management and will not do anything except set up a meeting with me and my co-workers for me to say, "Stop it." I pointed out today how offensive it is to say these things to me when, within our broader department, all the women are working mothers. I also pointed out how making those comments touches on a personal issue and how co-workers are not aware of everyone's circumstances, so they should not be making judgments. I got a grudging apology from one co-worker, but he didn't seem to understand what he'd done wrong. Any suggestions?
Do they think no women work once they have kids? And since some of these men sound like they have children themselves, you might ask them what they're doing at work.
For what it's worth, I strongly suspect that these guys are just clueless. In their own heads, they're probably being totally inoffensive and maybe even bonding with you about your impending parenthood. However, they're creating an environment where you reasonably feel that you're being reduced to your reproductive organs and devalued as a professional, and the fact that they don't realize that doesn't mean that you have to put up with it.
For starters, you should get really direct the next time this come up. Say something like this: "Making assumptions about me based on the fact that I happen to be a woman is offensive. I'm telling you clearly that I don't want to hear any further predictions that I'll put my career on the back burner after having a child. It's not up for discussion, and I need it to stop."
And if you actually feel harassed, not just annoyed, you could add, "You might not realize that your comments are crossing the line into legally problematic behavior, but I am telling you right now that they are. This is the last time I'm going to tell you that it needs to stop."
Make sure that you say this in a serious, no-nonsense tone. Don't do that thing that some of us do where we tone down something serious by trying to make it sound lighthearted. You will negate your words if you use a tone that contradicts them.
There's a very good chance that handling it like this will put a stop to it. But if the comments continue after this, then you should speak to someone in HR, because pregnancy is a legally protected class (like race, religion, etc.) and therefore these guys are exposing the company to legal liability just as if they were constantly harping on your race or religion. You say you feel HR is there to protect only upper management, but this is about protecting upper management. It's the company itself, not these guys personally, who would be at risk if you made a harassment complaint, and that's very much something HR would be concerned with.
Of course, if you complain to HR, then you might forever be seen as the overly sensitive person who made a mountain out of a molehill. If you'd prefer a more low-key approach, you could frame it a bit differently to HR: "I wanted to bring this to your attention because they're exposing the company to legal liability by these kinds of comments, and I figured you'd want to know that." In other words, you're not making an official complaint, but you're pointing out something that the company obviously would care about. This will work with some HR people but not others; some will treat anything you tell them as an official complaint no matter what disclaimers you put on it, but some will get what you're saying and put a stop to it without treating it as you having made a formal complaint.
By the way, if your boss is one of the people making these comments, then you really need to escalate it, because if your boss is convinced that you're not returning after maternity leave simply because you're a woman, you're more likely to be subjected to some sort of adverse employment action, not just infuriating comments.
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