Mailbag: A Woman in China

Q:  How do I answer questions in an interview that are about my personal life?  As a young woman, I am always asked two questions: am I married? Do I plan to have children?  And some of my friends are often asked about where their parents live, how old they are, etc.

A:  I feel I have to provide some context for this question.  I have several coaching clients who are Chinese, have come to the US to study and intend to return to their own country immediately or within a few years of receiving their degree.  This question comes from one of them…and the sad thing is that it could have come from any one of them (now or future).

These kinds of questions are illegal in the US, but that hardly makes them extinct so I’m going to answer this question for two reasons: first, because the approach I suggest for my coaching clients is good general advice for anyone who expects and fears a particular question in interviewing, and second, because whether it’s a calculated (or blundering) risk during hiring or a political minefield once you’ve been hired, many Americans will still have to face some similar question at some point (or several) in their professional lives.  It’s worth thinking about and preparing for. 

Understanding the Question

It feels pretty bad to get questions about your personal life in a professional interview.  And I have no interest in justifying that kind of bad behavior (bad behavior where it’s legal, unconscionable where it’s been proven illegal time after time in the courts)…in fact, if you skip down a couple of bullet points, I suggest you run from any employer that tries to get away with it.  However, in the moment, you’re going to need to hold yourself together and try to see where the interviewer is coming from if you want to respond well.

Interviewers are trying to find people who are a good fit for their job, people who will dedicate themselves to their duties, dedicate themselves to the company, people who will stay in their jobs for a long time…essentially, they’re looking for the best investment for their training and resources.  There are no huge problems yet in this formulation…but…then there are all the small minded hiring managers (want to argue that it’s practical?  You’re on shaky moral ground…) who are suspicious of women.

Unmarried women are one thing – they have tons of time, they’ve often got ambition, intelligence, emotional adaptability to spare and tend to do exceptionally well in teams.  But married women might need to leave with no notice to follow their husband’s job, and they’re going to want to have kids, which will suck away all that brainpower and unpaid overtime and single-minded dedication.  And then there’s the problem of elder care.  Women will wind up caring for aging parents (particularly in Asian nations) even if they convince you they plan to be child-free.

When you get questions about your personal life, the company is trying to figure out the most profitable ratio of investment (hiring, paying your salary, training you, etc.) to expected output (how MUCH work will you do, what quality of work will you achieve, will you move up ladders and keep their investment in house, etc.).  If you’re a woman of childbearing age, assume that any questions about your personal life means that their algorithm doesn’t emphasize your brilliance…they’re more concerned that you’ll work less, need flexible scheduling, eat up health insurance, and maybe ditch the workforce all together.

Answering the Question

If they’re going to be intrusive, go ahead and acknowledge what they’re really asking.  Put on a sweet smile (if you’re in China, refrain from meeting your interviewer’s eyes with a steely glare; in the US, your call) and let them know “That’s a rather personal question.”

Follow with “Let me assure you – I’m invested in my career.”  Then, the strongest position is to show them how much skin you too have in the game: I wouldn’t have spent X years and $X dollars building my education and career opportunities in the US to come home and leave the workforce.  I wouldn’t be risking my own reputation on a high level job if I didn’t plan to give it the dedication and total attention it deserves, and my family/spouse understands that about me.

Go ahead and use it as an opportunity to toot your horn about something: My resume shows how much I can accomplish.  I’m more intelligent, more creative, more effective than anyone else you’re considering for this job, and that makes me the right person to hire – whether I’m married or not.

To recap:

  • let them know that the question makes you uncomfortable (this is OK to do in China, very important to do in the US where they should be extremely uncomfortable in return)
  • respond by addressing their concerns as directly as possible in terms they will understand: I’m a good investment, I will be dedicated, I will do the job you hire me for, I’ve got too much to lose if I prioritize my personal life over my professional requirements; and then
  • use the opportunity to highlight one of your strengths

Using the Question

Successfully answering questions like this is one thing.  Best to impress the folks you meet. But you should be learning something critical about the company if you get a question like this.  What are they concerned about?  What are their values as a company? (hint – it’s probably an indication that they want people who put in very long hours and don’t prize work/life balance, and intelligent strategy is less prized than brute availability…and that’s just the start of the concerns you might be shining a light on) In the US, you learn something VERY critical about an HR process that allows something blatantly illegal to occur…either HR is poorly trained and ill-informed, or they’ve got rampant sexism, a culture of exceptionalism (I’m the boss, and I want to know if this chick is going to leave in a year to have kids because that’s a problem for me…who are you to tell me I can’t ask that?) and very poor controls.  Either way, ask yourself if that’s going to be a problem down the road.  What’s YOUR risk exposure?

Whether or not you’re interested in taking illegal questions to the authorities, you may just want to run away from a problematic work environment!

For US Readers: Knowing your Rights

Check out the EEOC – I know they must have a dense and hard to navigate website somewhere – for details, but there are enough tested precedents to make it illegal to ask any of the following anywhere in the interview/hiring process: whether you’re pregnant, what your marital status is, how many kids you have, what child care arrangements you may or may not have.  They definitely can’t ask women any of these things, and even if they ask everyone, it’s a liability that would put the burden on them to prove that they didn’t discriminate with any of the answers to those questions.  That said, if you volunteer any information, it’s out there…so be sure you know what you’re doing if you offer any of this volatile data!

A couple of notes: Without trying to make you paranoid, remember that anything you say (or convey) can potentially be used against you.  Are you a woman in your late twenties/early thirties?  You’re at a prime age for being discriminated against…and they may not be able to ask you about your marital status – but are you wearing a ring set?  I’ll get into pros and cons of tackling these personal questions and their pitfalls with aggressive candor a different day – it’s worth considering the value of using potential discrimination as a sorting device for yourself – but for today, the big takeaway is to be mindful of what they can’t ask, and make sure that you are in control of giving away any related information.

Also, once you’re hired, these categories of questions are back on the table for “legitimate business purposes.”  Functionally, that means if they’re offering benefits, they can ask about your family situation, etc…and the burden of proof shifts dramatically.  Once someone in the organization knows whether you’re married, whether you have kids, etc., even for an actually legitimate purpose, that information is in the air.  If you’re being hobbled because someone’s discriminating against mothers or suspected potential mothers…well, you’ll have to do better than prove that they simply asked the question, unfortunately.  It’s a murky landscape after you’re hired…

Answering the Question in Other Settings

Alas, somewhere in the murk of the day to day on the job is where most folks will get questions about marriage and kids.

Most of the time, it’s totally innocent.  People like to make small talk, people like to get to know their co-workers, their subordinates, etc.  You’ll open the door, one way or another, when you decorate your cubicle or office.  Photos of kids or pets or spouses or parents will draw attention, absence of such photos will get questioned too.  Wear a ring, don’t wear a ring.  Talk about your weekend, never mention a personal life.  Whatever you do will wind up being a topic of conversation, and if you demur too efficiently you’ll get dinged as an ice queen – someone who so resists personal conversation that they become unlikeable and suspicious.

Make your choices carefully.  Match them to the self-image you are creating at work.  If you do that, you have the opportunity to tackle people’s assumptions head on…

“That’s an awfully personal question, isn’t it?”  Always a great option.  If you want to answer, eventually, it buys you time.  If you want to use it as a conversation stopper, you can use your tone to make it a knife twist or a kind scolding.  And you can follow up with questions returned…put the focus on them, not you.

The catch with anything you say is that it can be used against you in the future.  Talk about your spouse, it might come back to haunt you in closed door sessions.  Mention having or wanting kids, your future potential might be questioned…even if you’re making idle chat at the Christmas party with a Department Supervisor other than your own.  BE CAREFUL.

That said, if you’re making an honest (err on the side of cautious) assessment of the climate of your workplace, you probably don’t have much to fear.  The more of us who demand flexible environments that prize work-life balance and focus on end results over face-time in the office, the easier it becomes to be  your full self (parent or not or undecided, caretaker of any kind, passionate about any non-work avenue, etc.) as a job asset rather than liability.

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