In a single day, two new reports have starkly revealed the sexism and discrimination that remains rife in UK workplaces. Despite the fact that the Equality Act 2010 should ban discriminatory workplace dress codes, a parliamentary inquiry has revealed “a culture of employers simply not following the law” and heard from countless women who had been pressured to wear revealing clothes, high heels, shorter skirts or strictly policed make up at work. Meanwhile another survey reveals that over half of female MPs have received physical threats, with abuse so commonplace and severe that a third have considered quitting.
It seems incredible to have to say it in 2017, but women should be able to do their jobs without having their appearance sexualised and disproportionately policed, or being forced to fear for their physical safety and that of their families. Yet these precise situations are faced by thousands of women across the UK on a daily basis. Clearly there is a yawning gulf between the principle of what should be prevented by legislation such as the Equality Act and the reality of experiences on the ground.
This reality has been shockingly uncovered this week by hundreds of women who have shared their experiences of inappropriate, sexist and even downright illegal interview questions with the #EverydaySexism hashtag on Twitter, showing that the problem can begin even before you start a job. Prompted by one woman’s story of being repeatedly asked: “Are you planning to start a family any time soon?”, hundreds of others spoke out about their own, similar experiences.
Clearly there is a yawning gulf between the principle of what should be prevented by legislation such as the Equality Act and the reality of experiences on the ground.
Again and again women reported being asked at interview about their marriage or family plans, their relationship status and childcare, with questions ranging from the roundabout: “Are you planning on being in the workforce in five years?” to the breathtakingly blunt: “Are you a virgin? I have to know these things.”
It is very difficult to imagine a male interviewee being similarly grilled – indeed several men got in touch to say such topics had never been mentioned to them, and many women contrasted the questions with the very different experiences the fathers of their children had in interviews.
A baffling number of women reported being asked: “What does your father/boyfriend/brother do for a living?” One was asked if she had heavy periods and would be expecting time off.
Some faced outright sexual harassment in the interview itself (“a friend was asked what colour her knickers were ‘to see how she would react to rude customers’”) while others were effectively told to expect it if given the job: "How would you handle being called 'baby' & 'sweetheart' by our male employees?”
Many were asked how their boyfriend or husband would feel about them taking the job, or if they would ‘allow’ them to travel or work long hours.
An asexual woman was asked “why are you not dating?”, lesbians were repeatedly asked about boyfriends, and women who were unable to have children were warned they might be considered a maternity risk.
Several women reported being openly rated on their looks, from one who was told she’d been hired as she was “the blonde with the big tits”, to another who “worked in a place where the boss drew up a spreadsheet of the physical attributes of female interviewees.”
All this despite the fact that government guidance clearly states that recruiters must not ask candidates about any protected characteristics, or about their marital or parental status or future plans for children.
Particularly worryingly, the parliamentary report highlighted the fact that workplace discrimination can disproportionately impact low-paid workers and those on zero-hours contracts, who have the least recourse to justice, particularly in light of increased tribunal fees. This suggests that urgent government and employer action is needed to tackle the problem, including better vetting of interview processes, fines for companies flouting the law and an urgent reassessment of up-front tribunal costs.
In the meantime, be inspired by one woman, who when asked by a male interviewer: “what will you do if your daughter gets a sore throat?” simply replied: “what do you do when yours does?”
Do you have a story of a sexist interview question? Share it with @EverydaySexism and @thepooluk on Twitter