Negotiating the "illegal questions" on an academic job interview

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgSo, have you been asked whether you are married or have kids on an academic job interview? Many of us have, even though the people interviewing you are not supposed to ask. What strategies have you used (or would have liked to use ;-) ) to deal with these awkward questions? Do you wear your wedding rings? Do you change the background of your computer screen before using your laptop to give your presentation? If you are part of a dual-career couple, when do you bring up your spouse to take advantage of spousal hiring opportunities?

This thread stems from a comment on this post about an invitation to tailgate on an academic job interview, and I didn't want the comment thread to derail there, so consider this comment thread open!

(Note: I don't think they're technically illegal per se, but if they're asked and you don't get the job, they can be damning evidence in an AA complaint...)

My thoughts are below the fold...

For my own part, I was asked these questions in the context of trying to be recruited to a department, and I'm afraid it scared me off the department instead of drawing me to it. I always thought the query of "can you tell me how that question pertains to my job interview here?" a graceful answer to either of the questions. I kept my wedding rings on. I have landscapes on my computer laptop background. And I brought up my husband's need for a job once the department chair called saying he wanted to make me an offer.

What are your experiences?

More like this

I got an email from a reader a few days ago posing a doozy of a problem: she's heading to an interview this week at an institution, and part of her interview involves having "beer with the guys". With her permission, I share with you an edited version of her email: Hi ladies,I am a job candidate…
Inside Higher Ed today features an opinion piece by a lecturer about the excruciating awkwardness of job interviews: [T]he banal yet innocuous questions faculty members do ask -- "Where was I from?" "How did I get interested in this topic?" -- become loaded with a significance out of proportion to…
Following up on Alice's excellent discussion-starter post on "negotiating the illegal questions on an academic job interview," I'd like to offer a few thoughts from the departmental side of the equation. Anyone with more or different experiences should also chime in below. First of all, search…
Remember the post on "Negotiating Beer with the Guys on a Job Interview"? from back in August. We had a lively discussion in the comment thread on the way a teetotaler interviewee could handle an interview schedule that included "throwing a few back" in a tailgate reception. Today, a new comment…

I am impressed and happy to hear about UC Riverside's (Biology) "career partners program." My husband and I are biologists (in academia) with the 'two body problem'. The inappropriate questions and apparent negative bias (about kids, needing a second position) have been directed almost exclusively at me.

I have been asked "do you have kids?" or "what does your husband do?" at nearly every interview I have ever had. Ironically, the one time this was not asked, I was extremely taken by the entire faculty and was thrilled when they made me a generous offer...however, due to family considerations, I had to turn it down. Nevertheless, I feel these questions are completely irrelevant and inappropriate in an interview. Iff a hiring unit makes an offer, it is then great to discuss these topics. Until such time, the focus should be on the required skills for the job.

By The second body (not verified) on 15 Jul 2011 #permalink

The interviewer relaxed after a bit and then told me about her family. When she finished, she waited, tacitly inviting me to tell her about mine. I'm divorced, no kids, no story to tell. She didn't approve.

By Schreckstoff (not verified) on 25 Aug 2008 #permalink

We certainly have that problem in interviews for residency and fellowship positions ("we" meaning US medical centers, not me in particular). Part of the problem is educating the interviewers who are often "giving" their time and have no formal training on how to conduct a proper interview.

The questions are very much of the "when did you stop beating your wife" variety, in that there is no good answer.

My own experience in academia is that many departments are a decade or so behind in sensitivity to such questions and illegal requirements.

A friend of mine who was one of the best all around scholars I knew in grad school specialized in classical Greek and Roman history. He was second generation Japanese-American. Despite the fact that he was as much a generic middle class American kid as I am, many of his job interviews openly questioned the "appropriateness" of his choice of field. "Why didn't you study Asian History?" they would ask, even though they would never have thought of looking at my lily-white face and asking why I was studying African history.

I have been asked about family, but then I am male. I have also been asked about my religion. In most cases, they are innocent, lets get to know each other, questions. and usually followed by supportive statements such as "We have an excellent school system" .

but in the south, my religion is not viewed favorably.

This reminds me of my experience as a student representative during faculty hiring rounds a few years back. At a reception a semi-drunk department head told me that their top choice, a woman, would not be given an offer after the hiring committee found out she was married and wanted to have kids soon. This is the same department that explicitly told its graduate students to find out information such as Are they married? Have kids? Want kids? Family in the area? Spouse or partner able to find work here? Etc. It is probably not surprising that we routinely decided to not make offers to minorities, republicans, and ex-militarynot because they were unqualified for the positions, but because they did not fit into the white liberal culture that prevailed. It is no wonder that we have had several faculty openings remain open for the past three years.

Given this experience, I would find it helpful if someone could provide a list (or link) or illegal hiring questions and / or unethical hiring practices.

During my one-on-one dinner with the search committee chair at my campus interview, she told me that during her postdoc her husband had left her for another woman and that she'd had to struggle through her early career with a young child in tow ... and then waited for me to unload with an equally personal story. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, I didn't have any sad or interesting tales to tell so I just nodded understandingly and left it at that!

The faculty were all so nice and so enthusiastic about having me interview that I was more than willing to overlook what was a slightly inappropriate and definitely uncomfortable moment.

I got the position incidentally (before the end of the interview) and they are now slowly finding out more things about me that I'm not sure they had bargained on initially ... particularly my penchant for extreme sports ... nobody asked me about THAT during the interview!!

Some people may not know they're not supposed to ask. It's appropriate to say, "I don't believe you're legally allowed to ask me that question."

I honestly can't remember if I've ever been asked that question. I talk about them so much I don't think it would occur to me to question how they came up in conversation. Of course in my case my husband is not in academia and had no problem with relocating for me (actually he looked forward to it) and my son was way past the age of needing my daily attention by the time I went on the market.

Michael -- a list of inappropriate questions are available in the WISELI Guide for Search Committee Chairs available as a pdf here:, pp. V7-V9. These specifically apply to the UW-Madison, but which have parallels everywhere, I would guess. They also have a pamphlet suitable for giving to all search committee members on implicit biases, available here:

Zen, even if they know that it is illegal it probably isn't a good idea. I doubt the interviewer will consider things at all favorably if you said that to them. Part of the problem with this sort of situation is that it is very difficult to come out and just say that without making the interview pretty annoyed. (Incidentally, my impression is that anecdotally women are much more likely to be asked these sorts of questions than men. Are others under that impression?)

Awesome and important topic Alice! As for me, I didn't mind telling people I was married - and I wore my wedding ring. My husband is in an easily relocatable job track and I considered it an (innappropriate) bonus to let interviewers know that. Of course, since my husband's employment is more of the hourly wage than the salaried professional, I did wonder if people would look down on me for my choice of spouse.

When an interviewer asked about children (and plans for them), I awkwardly paused and then said "why do you ask?" He tried to say that he wanted to tell me how great a place it was to raise children....but I felt that the tone of the question was asked in a fishing manner and it made me quite uncomfortable.

I also made sure to set my laptop desktop to a picture of my research area rather than me/friends/family/dog having fun. (Now it's easy - one of your pictures graces my desktop!)

in the year after my son died, I simply told them that I had a son who died. This usually made them regret that they asked. Most of the time people are trying to be helpful and friendly, and so trying to deflect it in a friendly manner is probably best.

As a male with a partner who works from home, it's not much of a burden for me.

But we really shouldn't have to answer any of those questions. Hopefully people will learn to stop asking.


I generally went (slightly - as others have noted, it's a common conversation topic) out of my way to be the one to introduce these topics to the conversation; almost universally this resulted in relaxation, a comment to the effect that "well, we're not allowed to ask, but since you brought it up.." and information on schools/suggestions for help with spousal move/personal anecdotes.

On the other hand, it was definitely a plus for me that people had a clear picture of such details; so there probably is at least some bias against folk who choose not to provide such info. Which is sad :(.

I've interviewed for academic and industry jobs, and I can't think of a single interview where I wasn't asked the married/kids question. How I answer depends on the vibe I'm getting from the interviewers. In most cases, the questions have been posed as friendly openings for further conversation ("let me tell you how good our schools are!"); when this is the case, I'm usually up front about my current status. At the time I was interviewing, I was married but childless, so I would say "Yes, I'm married; no, I don't have kids." I wouldn't elaborate on the whole kids thing (it's nobody's damn business what my reproduction plans are!), but I would use the opportunity to ask about jobs in the area for Mr. Jane. The few times I've felt creepy vibes, I've sidestepped the question, usually by redirecting the conversation back to my work. I do wear my wedding ring on interviews though, so I'm guessing most people can deduce my marital status even if I don't answer the question.

I have been thinking about this very question lately, because if I do go on the market this year, I'll have to decide how I want to handle the kid question. So thanks for starting this thread, Alice!

The inappropriate questions don't stop at the job interview.
My first day, when I went to ask my chair for mentoring regarding a grant proposal with an imminent deadline, and he told me not to worry about that but focus on settling in. At which point he offered his recommendation for a gynecologist. Trying to be helpful? Wanting me to secure birth control? Unable to get woman-parts off his mind? I'll never know. I took his recommendation and crossed the name off my list of potential physicians.

Beware of colleagues who are (or think they are) friends, close enough to ask the inappropriate questions after they get to know you. In my case, it's female colleagues (senior and peer), married with children, asking the impossible question "so do you think you'll *ever* have kids?" I am single, no kids, no plans to change that. If I say a clear no, I get labeled anti-kid, which I am not. A soft no like "I don't have the patience" is met with denial and some encouraging words about my future as a parent. If I say some non-committal maybe, they just keep asking. And what if I *did* want kids and the topic was sorely, personally painful? I don't think they even realize what they are asking.... but I don't tell them how uncomfortable it makes me.

Two weeks ago a colleague began a sentence with "When you get married..." and proceeded to tell me what my wedding will be like (it was going to be like hers). Can't win there either - I didn't dare insult her wedding. But I regret not standing up for myself.

I'm not pleased with my tendency to shrink away from these situations. I think among the no-win options it's best to stand up for yourself (whether that's answering honestly or calling people on their inappropriate questions, take your pick) and let the chips fall, even and especially in job interviews. Now where do we get the courage?

It's also helpful to remember that laws and customs on this topic vary by country. Imagine my (American) surprise when discovering that CVs in Switzerland (and all of Europe as far as I can tell) state right at the top the person's date of birth, marital status, number of children and citizenship status. Right next to the picture of the person! Jobs ads here in Switzerland will routinely state a preferred age range for applicants, and many postdoc positions are explicitly not allowed for someone over the age of 34 (ruling out a late bloomer like myself).

I do agree that sometimes the point of the question is to either just relax and chitchat a little (or to offer help/info about the local schools, etc), but sometimes I also suspect it's to find out how uptight a person is. I always have a sneaking suspicion that it's a trick question: if I answer and it's not the right answer, the information will be used against me. But if I refuse to answer, then it says I'm too focused on the letter of the law and am going to be a difficult person to work with. I guess that's why there's a whole comment thread about it :)

Up front, Im not a woman or minority (unless atheist college professor can be considered a minority). I am concerned about the concern over the unaskable questions. Clearly, these questions can and have been used to separate the wheat from the chaff at least in the eyes of a biased person and I can see this going both ways .... "hmm, married woman, won't be dedicated to work and probably having kids soon or hmm, single woman, must be something wrong or will be looking for a partner."

I think the idea that you can't or shouldn't ask these questions is like treating a symptom without treating the underlying problem. I feel better, yet the cancer is still killing me. When I meet job candidates (although I have not served on a search committee yet) and I think they would be a good fit in the department, I want to be able to discuss more personal issues because I want to point out the relevant benefits of the school/city/area. I will talk about schools, what the department has done by way of partner hires, etc. iirc I don't generally ask, but without any input from the candidate I don't want to waste their/my time.

It seems like people would prefer to have robotic-like interviews as a totally safe route. I think this is extremely dangerous for both parties. First, as a candidate you want to get to know (in the very limited time you have, the interview and recruiting weekend at best) the people you will be working with. Knowing what they work on doesn't tell you if the environment will be any good. Second, the department wants to know more about you to see if you are a good fit. They are investing a million dollars or so into you, so that seems reasonable to me.

In short, I guess I am an optimist. When I have seen/been asked more personal questions I have answered, I have also asked up front about such things when I have interviewed. If a department doesn't appreciate that I have a family, I want to know it in advance, not find out after I am established there. Of course, this allows those who use the questions to bias their decisions negatively room to work with, my reminder is that these decisions come with from one person with the backing of many people. If the chair goes against the majority, problems tend to arise.

Frequently when interviewers ask personal questions, it's because they're gearing up to be helpful. "You have kids? Great, because we have terrific schools!" "Your spouse is a large animal veterinarian? Terrific, because our state happens to have a lot of cows!". The search committee knows that many factors go into your decision to accept a job offer besides the department's overall awesomeness. Thus, the more we can start wooing you with the complete package, the better our chances of luring you. To avoid any hint of discrimination, rather than asking questions, I phrase these issues as providing information -- "If you happen to have a two-career issue, we can work to find some accommodation", or "If you are thinking of having kids, we have good public schools" -- with no implication that the applicant is expected to respond.

And I completely agree with Lorax that if a department has an "issue" with your personal status, you almost certainly do not want to be there.

I don't have magic answers but I wanted to bring up a point as I don't hear it addressed often when this topic is discussed.

I have read many discussions of this topic before my job interviews and I thought I was prepared for it but in reality the situation was a lot different to what I expected. See, often, people already know bits about your personal life. Academics in any particular field tend to know each other over the years from conferences, mutual acquaintances and such. I try to keep my real personal stuff to myself but basic important life events such as getting married or having a child, I wouldn't hide from friends and colleagues. Do you? And I don't tell them to keep it secret. Do you?

Ergo, in my interviews, more than a few times, I was not asked whether I was married, but directly about my husband's profession (likely to suss out a spousal hire situation). I'd only been married a couple of years, I don't wear a wedding ring, my husband is not an academic who knows these people himself, I did not have a wedding etc... yet people knew... All the prior reading I'd done about this topic did not prepare me to this. What was I to say "wait a minute, rewind, you're supposed to first ask me if I am married and I'm supposed to say, ". Nope it happened way too fast!

Additionally, I frequently experienced male and female faculty talking to me about "when I have children" (again, noone asked whether I had any, just jumped to the "when", not "if" of course). I was slightly peeved but it was clear that they were trying to tell me that they were supportive of women who have kids on the tenure track. Any of you reading this, please consider using an "if" instead of "when" when talking about other people's non-existent kids... Some people don't want children, others might be in the middle of the stress of facing infertility.

I guess my point is, be prepared that they might already know something about these kinds of things. And when these "illegal" questions are asked, they're rarely direct and often sound a lot different in context. It becomes a lot more complicated than saying something appropriate that you thought of before...

I don't know what is ideal to do, in my case I simply told the truth. But in general, that's what I do. There are many factors about who I am that are statistically correlated with harsher/negative judgments and possible discrimination, but there's nothing I can do about these things...

I think one way to approach some of these questions is to smile genuinely and say, "I'm not sure that's an appropriate question. But if I were married/had kids/wanted to have kids/etc. what kind of support do you offer with relocation/childcare/maternity leave/etc.? I ask because it tells me a lot about your institution."

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

When interviewing for schools, I was asked if my husband was willing to relocate (I wear my wedding ring). I kind of felt like this was a duh kind of question. I wouldn't have applied to this school if there was no chance of my husband moving here. I'm not ashamed of my husband or of being married, and so people can ask away about him! And, yep, I have a kid who I adore and will tell anyone who asks. But on the question of do I want more children? That's a private question between my husband and me. No inlaws, friends, employers, or co-workers involved. I think a better question is how to ask about maternity/family leave policies without sending off warning bells.

Except for not getting my first job because "you're a girl and you might get pregnant and not come back" this hasn't come up for me as an interviewee. (I was young and didn't realise how awful a statement it was.) Since then, 10 years ago, i've never had anyone ask, or at least if they did, i just flat don't recall. My section of the country is small and everybody has a pretty good idea of each other so most of those questions don't need to be asked, since personal recommendations are how i got all of my interviews.

As an interviewer for companies that like to expose all levels of candidate to non-PhDs to make sure they can play nice, the most direct question we're allowed to ask during lunch (certainly not during the formal parts of the interview) is "Do you have any questions about the area, including neighbourhoods of interest or property values?" We used to include the phrase "school districts" but that was considered too leading.

Just another POV...

By the time we've read your CV, research plan, teaching philosophy, and cover letter (as well as talked to your references or read their letters), we're pretty sure we're interested in hiring you. Consequently, the interview is more a process of you getting to know the institution, and us figuring out how to woo you to say yes to our offer.

While I've never point blank asked someone about their marital or child status, I regularly tell tenure track candidates about how I negotiated having two children while pre-tenure and finding appropriate employment. It's a way for them to get to know the culture of the institution, and perhaps to be better able to visualize how their personal life might mesh with their professional life.

So we're not discussing these topics to discriminate, rather to give a more comprehensive picture of the quality of life at the institution. Maybe it's because I'm at a small liberal arts college, where life outside of the classroom is considered to be as important as life inside the classroom (at least for students, and we'd like to think for faculty too).

By gymlabrat (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

@Andrea Grant Switzerland is not "all of Europe". In the UK any trained interviewer knows these questions are unacceptable and liable to be interpreted as strong evidence of an intent to discriminate illegally.

By Hilary PhD (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

I've been asked illegal questions about my physical disability. The approach that seems to work best is to first, assume that there is no animus on the part of interviewer. Becoming defensive is the quickest way to end of interview.

And then respond by asking for a bit of clarification. "I'm not sure how to answer that question. I've seen the job description and I'm sure that I can handle everything on that list. For example, in my last job I accomplished xxx and yyy."

That approach has worked for me. It is subtle and focuses the interviewer's attention on the issues that matter.

Don't forget, an interview is a two way street. The fact that they are asking illegal questions in the interview is teaching you about the organization.

By David C. Brayton (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

I can't believe anybody doesn't know that these questions are illegal. Every time my department has conducted a search, the chair has gone over, again, what questions can and cannot be asked of the candidates. It legally protects the school, and it boggles my mind that this information is not widely disseminated in a similar fashion at other places. There just isn't any excuse.

I get that we want to get to know our potential colleagues (this goes both ways) in a somewhat informal way during a job interview. But there are tons of things to talk about that aren't religion/ability/marital status/kid status. One of the things I did, since I was extremely worried about getting the illegal questions, was talk about where I was from and my general family background (how I grew up, etc) and activities I like to pursue during the more informal moments. That way I could be casual and personable, without talking about the things I didn't want to bring up - that I had a same-sex partner who would happily relocate for me. We weren't married yet, so I wasn't wearing a ring, but I probably would have taken it off before the interviews if so. Also, a senior colleague suggested that one way to deflect the question about being married, and yet reassure the dept (if it is true for you) about the potential for a two-body problem, is to say something like "if what you are asking is whether there are any potential impediments to my coming here, or complications to my accepting an offer, then no" or something along those lines.

I did get one sneaky question from a member of one (all male) department, who asked how the schools were down where I was from. How the heck to answer that without revealing something he didn't have a right to know?! Basically, I said the truth which was that I didn't really know. It irritated me to no end, although not as much as his sexist jokes about his wife. Way to go making me (not) want to be the lone woman joining your department!

"I can't believe anybody doesn't know that these questions are illegal."

In fact, these questions are not illegal. I can't believe that people claim they are illegal. However, these questions are indefensible if a rejected applicant who was asked one of these questions sues for discrimination.

I have always been asked about marital status and kids (if I have kids, not if I want kinds or if I been already pregnant). I have always anwered with the truth (not about wanting kids or beeing pregnant, just about the kids I already have).
In my opinion the answer "This is a ilegal question and therefore I will not answer it" is not the best one: in this way the interviwers will suppose that the reality is the worst of what they can think (for ones will be "married" for others "looking desesperately for a guy" or "already pregnant" or "married with 6 kids" or... whatever!). I am not sure about this but I think the reality is better than let them imagine about a situation that you should be hide from them.

I had got two postdoc position (one with boyfriend, one with husband) and one teaching position (with husband and one toddler). So I think at the end the people do not care too much about your family situation. They suppose that if you apply for the position you are aware about what the expect from you work wise.

Just what I think...

As I read these comments, I'm beginning to wonder if there will be a shift as time goes on and these questions will no longer contain the stigma they once did...

I'm a relatively young professional (mid-twenties) who works as a research analyst for a state agency. I've sat on a few interview panels, and while I was interested in the marital status related stuff, I would never discriminate against someone because of it. I suppose I should also point out at this point that I'm also a female, so perhaps I have a better understanding of how a person could balance family and career successfully. In fact, and I've heard this is more of a generational shift, I personally value (very highly) the work-life balance. I would completely expect someone to be able to take maternity/paternity leave or have a flex schedule or do whatever else was needed to make that balance work.

Anyway, my point is, perhaps as more X-ers and Next-ers take over the hiring panel, this will be less of an issue.

By young researcher (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Those of you who are interested in dual-career issues - and it sounds like quite a few of you might be! - take a look at new research from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, "Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know". It's available from the Clayman Institute's website for download ( Full disclosure: I'm the associate director at the institute.

"I'm glad you're interested in me as a person, but I try not to answer that question as a matter of principle"
If they ask you to elaborate, feel free to expound on objections to hetornormative attitudes, why it is socially poor taste to painfully remind the infertile of their reproductive failings, feminism, or just plain "CYA from a legal perspective in the workplace".

We had a staff guy in our department who apparently spent the whole time talking about marriage/spouse/family issues with interview candidates. When I heard about it (from a candidate who was uncomfortable with the line of questioning), I went to the dept head, who, I hope, slapped the guy silly.

I don't think the best response is that it is an "illegal" question, but I think the word we are looking for is "inappropriate." If the question makes you uncomfortable and is improper, I think you should just say that you don't think the question is really appropriate and that you would like to stick to job issues. You will see someone become very guilty, very quickly knowing they went over the line.

In terms of interviewing, I still prefer the approach of "Are there any other aspects that I haven't addressed that you would like me to tell you about that might help convince you to come here?" Let the candidate decide on the things that matter to them.

I realize Dept Heads walk a fine line, here, because there are very often two body problems that need to be solved, and I can tell you, sometimes it is a lot easier to address that early in the offer rather than later. However, if the candidate doesn't brooch the subject, there really isn't much that can be done.

What a great thread! When I started applying to grad schools, I had all the same questions (wish I had run across this thread a few years ago!). I'm in clinical psychology, so you have to interview before you can get accepted. I remember asking all my professors "Should I wear my wedding ring? What if they ask about kids (I don't have any)" My professors said they never asked questions like that and weren't supposed to pay attention to wedding rings for that purpose, which made me feel better about my undergrad institution. In the end it was never brought up in my interviews.

Frequently when interviewers ask personal questions, it's because they're gearing up to be helpful.

I was never asked about my family situation in any of my interviews, despite being of an age at which I could be reasonably thought to have at least one small child. I'm a dude by the way. So I'd be real careful about inferring why people are asking those questions.

Things are a bit more complicated than your blanket statement. For example, asking about a physical disability during a job interview is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some other areas are not per se illegal but because there is absolutely no justification for the question (i.e., in very few situations is a person's race, natural origin or marital status relevant to the job requirements), the purpose of the question cannot be explained by anything other animus.

So, in these situations the effect is the same--the questions are de jure illegal.

By David C. Brayton (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Just last week I was chatting with a colleague in the library quad. We were talking about a new faculty hire who seemed quite capable and a good fit for our department. My colleague gestured at the library and said, "The man whose name is on that building interviewed me when I was hired. He asked me, 'Why aren't you married?'"

I had heard the exact same story from a second colleague. Both of these guys were hired in the seventies. It seems that in those days the college president asked whatever he felt like asking. He didn't block the hiring of either of my then-bachelor colleagues and I have no good idea what he was fishing for.

I think another point worth making is that these questions (what do you do, are you married, where are you from, do you have kids) are ways of establishing common social ground. Particularly at social events at interviews, I think it is worth having a conversation starter ready on a topic that you ARE willing to share about.
In my spare time I....
The last good book I read was....
Say did you see that TV show last week...
Realize that you can keep the conversation going on other topics as well.

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Anon wrote:

Two weeks ago a colleague began a sentence with "When you get married..." and proceeded to tell me what my wedding will be like (it was going to be like hers). Can't win there either - I didn't dare insult her wedding. But I regret not standing up for myself.

You could have just said "Your wedding sounds nice, but I don't really plan on having one". You don't have to insult people to disagree with them and let them know they're being presumptuous asses. That is really rude- I'm right there with you.

But I have to say, I get that a lot less now that I'm in my 30's. One of the fringe benefits of getting older :)


And I'm (slightly) ashamed to admit this, but I actually once pleaded with my boss to not hire any more people with children. We work a lot of late nights, overtime and weekends and I can not tell you how many times I've heard the {whiny voice} I need to go home and give my daughter a bath{/whiny voice} excuse. Or how utterly tired I am of the "But little Johnny has a track meet- here- you stay until ten and come in on Saturday to finish this bull#%*^ no one wants to do, I couldn't possibly."

Meanwhile, I get to work 5 hours past quitting time and come in on weekends to pick up the slack. Several times a month. Without notice. Oh yeah. I'm bitter :)

(To be fair, I know a lot of people with kids who aren't that inflexible. As I said, I'm bitter. But not entirely without cause! I don't work in academia- I work in industry and we are totally mercy of our clients. Not the best line of work if you have children and don't have/can't get/won't pay for a sitter as flexible as your coworkers. Just saying. Maybe keep looking if you think that might be the case for you!)

i was preparing for a wedding at the time of my grad school interviews. i never even thought to take off the engagement ring. each department chair congratulated me on my engagement and politely asked what my fiancee was up to. they then used the (limited) info i gave them to list the things in the area that would be of interest to him, to convince me to come to that particular university. it was clear from the start that each one of them wanted me as a grad student, as their interviews boiled down to "what can we do to bring you in to our program?"

i actually found it helpful in deciding where would be best for us to go.

@David Brayton:

I'm an ecology Ph.D. student and have a physical disability that does affect how I do lab and field work. When I was corresponding with potential advisers, I talked on the phone with a young prof I thought I might want to work with (we had exchanged a fair number of emails by then). I mentioned my disability, as I thought he should have a full picture of who he would be getting, and he refused to ask any questions about it. This put me in a puzzling situation, since all I could do was to give a brief description of what I considered relevant challenges and solutions, but I had no idea what he was thinking or what questions or misconceptions he might have had. (The process ended well, but our interests drifted apart and I ended up studying with a different professor at the same university.)

I can do all kinds of research despite my disability, but it is a factor. I want to address your concerns, but I'm not a mind-reader. Please ask!

And I'm (slightly) ashamed to admit this, but I actually once pleaded with my boss to not hire any more people with children. We work a lot of late nights, overtime and weekends and I can not tell you how many times I've heard the {whiny voice}

a) You are probably getting promotions/raises/bonhomie that your child-rearing colleagues are denied, because your boss is aware of what's going on.
b) If you're really that overworked, tell your boss to hire two people, not one childless person. It sounds as though your group needs more help, and it's not ever a good idea to assume that people can work overtime.
c) Or, just don't start with the whiny voice when there aren't enough 25-yr-old nurses to wipe your bum in your dotage.

I can recall being asked inappropriate/illegal questions only twice. A student was showing me around campus during a grad school interview, and we were chatting about various things. She asked if I would have "someone" moving out here with me, if I accepted. It was casual conversation and I answered truthfully (I wasn't sure). In retrospect, I'm not sure what I would have said now, having read this post and comments. I didn't get an offer from the school, but I wouldn't have accepted there anyway, so it didn't matter in the end. I did appreciate her phrasing though - the use of "someone" instead of picking a specific gender.

The other time was also at a grad school interview, talking with a faculty member (who is now my advisor). He asked, somewhat hesitantly, if I thought my hearing (I'm hard of hearing/Deaf) would affect my ability to do the kind of research he (and hopefully I) would be doing. Technically not a question he's supposed to ask, but since we would be working with sound it was a logical one, and I really can't blame him for asking. I explained why I thought things would work, and we haven't encountered any problems so far.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs Hyde:

a) In my job category, yes. I will get the all-sought-after promotion. I guess that's not such a massively awesome fringe benefit when we're only talking about a few bucks, if that, an hour.

b)Duh! That's not up to me, though. Hence the desperate pleading with my boss to make it clear to new applicants that overtime is expected.

The only kink in that plan is that everyone agrees to more or less anything in the interview. "Want me to sacrifice virgins? NOO problem! Babysitters? Who needs 'em?" It isn't until later that you find out these people are full of total %^$&. And that they have no intention of doing anything that might be inconvenient for them.

c) What are you talking about? I'm not a nurse.

It isn't my bum that gets, or needs, any actual wiping, sadly. Because there are a lot of days it would come in handy! Specifically those days in which I end up working 14 or 15 hours, not being able to even take bathroom breaks or skipping lunch so someone else can go screw off at their kid's track meet. Or give their not-even-really-dirty kid a bath when their husband is home to do it. Did I mention I'm bitter?

And I don't care how old they are. They signed up for the job. They were told the expectation of overtime at the interview. Their age is not relevant. Their lack of honesty and willingness to screw over coworkers, however, is. Hence, no pity from me.

You all think wrong way.

Ask yourself: Do I really want to work with person who asks inappropriate questions? Will I be able to get good results and avoid nervous breakdown in this environment?

Such question is warning sign: avoid this lab. Never go to unfriendly academic environment. You will not be able to work productively, and there are (believe me!) plenty of equally good "normal" groups around.

I know some wonderfully gifted female researcher who made mistake to go to toxic group. Not working with poisons, but toxic personal relations. Poor girl ended burned out, with big waste both for her life and science.

Jerry is right. People go into job interviews with the backwards attitude that they are supplicants, hoping the hiring manager will see that they should get that ten bucks an hour.

The only proper attitude that one should keep in their mind is, "I'm here to save your ass, and if you can't see that I'll take my talents to someone who can." YOU, dear candidate, are the one who should be asking the "inappropriate" questions. YOU are the one with the power in the job interview - the power to lead the interviewer to realize that unless you are there to solve their problems, they will wallow in their misery for years to come.

Never, ever again say, "I need a job." Always believe, "There's a job out there that needs me."

I know i already weighed in, but i have to agree with some of the people who defend the questions as _SOMETIMES_ being harmless and not leading at all.

In an 8 hour interview, some topics will be beat to death. The purpose of interviewers at my level, during lunch, is to give the interviewee a chance to let their brain clear and relax a little. As such, we're asked to stay away from science or their career as a topic. As a result, there are only a few socially acceptable questions remaining, and spouses and offspring are among that category. Though we're warned to not specifically ask, sometimes the subject comes up if the candidate asks: "So what did you do last weekend?"

I respect that it is a grey area; i'm just not certain that having the subject slip is worth vilifying a well-intentioned person over, depending on the context.

@Andrea Grant: The upfront "birthdate, marital staus, children" method is typical, as far as I know, of the german speaking area (they all hire in the same way: Germany, Austria, german speaking Switzerland, and Universitaet Bozen).

Direct questions on marital and parental status are illegal everywhere in Europe, and I never was asked one. I'm married with a colleague, so our 2-body problem was up and central every step of the way. Nobody ever asked me about children, and I treated the information as private. And when I found out I was expecting twins, I didn't tell anyone until the job offer arrived.

@Spike: it's nice you view it like that. But if you're looking for two jos in the same (sub)field at driving distance from each other, you can't be too picky.

A side remark: at least in America you can apply in about half the continent without learning another language (and in the whole continent with a mere 4 languages, all of them indoeuropean). In Europe we have to deal also with that problem during the job search.

Appropos of Jerry's comments above, in our department, our hiring committee is actually called the "Faculty Recruiting Committee." In fact, our job is not just to screen candidates and chose the best for the position, but it is to recruit the candidate to come when the offer is made (the folks we offer jobs to will usually get at least a few other offers). We can't drive them away in the interview process.

And, to be honest, during that interview we are far more focused on assessing how the candidate fits with the rest of us scientifically. The issue of "other things" only really comes up when it looks like an offer is imminent, when we decide "This is the person we want to hire - ok, what's it going to take to get him/her to come?" At this point, it can be in the candidate's best interest to answer the question I mentioned above, "Are there any other aspects that I haven't addressed that you would like me to tell you about that might help convince you to come here?" in an honest manner, particularly if there are spousal accomodation issues, where we can start working behind the scenes.

BTW, once the offer is made, such questions are perfectly legit, right? At that point, it is a recruiting issue, and not an interview.

Our chair told us graduate students that interviewers frequently ask the marriage/kids question because they want to help with finding the spouse a job, or recommend good schools for the kids. But when you are being asked the questions, how do you know the motivation behind the question until after you answer? (or after the interview etc)

I have been asked about my family status on every single interview I've ever had, all in the US. My impression is that the asker usually means well and wants to talk about the town's great schools, etc. That said, in my current department, this kind of information often gets repeated in the search committee or in faculty meetings and has been used to knock candidates out of the running. Even if the askers have good motives, you can't assume that they will keep your reply to themselves, or that all the faculty have equally good motives.

As for Jerry's comments, not everyone has the luxury of waiting for the perfect job. The job market sucks. There are just not very many science departments out there that are welcoming for female scientists with kids or up-front about wanting kids. In my mind it's better to get the job and run with it than risk burning out after four postdocs.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 27 Aug 2008 #permalink

That said, in my current department, this kind of information often gets repeated in the search committee or in faculty meetings and has been used to knock candidates out of the running.

I won't deny that marital/family status is very often known by the hiring committee (either brought up by the candidate, inappropriately asked (not as common today), or we just know the candidate), but my experience has been that the only context it has been brought up is in a spousal accomodation issue. I have NEVER heard anyone use it as a basis for hiring or not hiring anyone.

In fact, once the offer is made, we have in many cases gotten candidates we would not have otherwise been able to get because we have been able to find or even _create_ opportunities for spouses (the university has a spousal accomodations program, in fact). Sometimes we can do something like that, sometimes we can't, unfortunately, and lose candidates as a result, but family status really isn't an issue for us in deciding who to hire. Recruiting them in once the offer is made is a different story, however.

Maybe I am just lucky to work in a more enlightened department ... (then again, it's probably not a coincidence that we have the most women of any comparable department in the field in the country, for sure in total number and maybe even now in percentage (we have a large faculty))

I know that as a grad. student and postdoc, I sometimes asked inappropriate questions because I was trying to provide useful information. But the issue isn't if the question was meant to be helpful, it's what can happen with the information. Even if the question is totally innocent, an answer that you (or other people) consider "unusual" clearly has the potential affect people's thinking and may affect hiring decisions in an inappropriate fashion.

Once I thought about this, it seemed that the best approach was to try and provide useful information without first trying to see if it was directly relevant to them. It's easy enough to mention the benefits of your group, university, or city without asking about spouse, kids, etc.... Information about things like good school districts or day care programs can be nice to know even if you don't have kids at the moment, or don't ever plan on having kids. Just give a feeling for the various good or bad things about the area, and if the person wants to find out more, they can ask you for details, or follow up with people who aren't part of the interview process. It seems the simplest way to bring up helpful information without forcing them to either answer questions they may feel are inappropriate or making them say that they don't want to answer.

Leni, I know you know your life better than I do, but have you considered finding another job? That level of bitterness can't be healthy.

I think what DJ&MH was getting at regarding c) was that in another 20-40 years, the kids of your co-workers (the ones with all the darn track meets) will be nurses... and you will be much older, perhaps with limited mobility or ill. If no one takes care of kids now, there will be no one to take care of you when you are old.

The key point is that raising kids is not "skipping out on real work"- it is a vital part of continuing our way of life.

In any event, as a practical matter... It is illeal for your boss to not hire people based on their having children. Therefore, don't plead for that. It's futile. If you must plead for something futile, I do concur that you should plead for *more* employees to cover the load. At least then you're pleading for something *legal*.

That said, it does sound like you are being exploited. Not by the folks with kids, but by your boss. I'd be bitter too.

I am in Human Resources. It is against the law to ask an applicant, or employee, of their marital status and/or if you have children/plan to have children etc. in the US; there is no gray area, all hiring businesses of any type, are forbidden from asking those questions. If asked, you state; I would rather not disclose my personal family status. Or, if you feel that may be detrimental; you state that you have no children and are unmarried -- as it is even more illegal (i.e. expensive) for them to fire you if they ever found out that you were married or had children (like when you signed up for insurance) as the question is illegal, you would invariably win in court - large sums; and the employer would be foolish to fire you considering the possible circumstance for the termination as may get brought up in court - generally employers will not take such a risk. Employees always have the upper hand in employment law, even if they made a bunch of written warnings or came up with other reasons for your term. You would have a case by stating you had lied in answering the illegal question and upon their discovery of the truth you were pushed towards the chopping block.

They also cannot ask about health or any other non performance related personal questions either. Or, what you do in your spare time. It is not illegal for you to bring anything up, however.


"Employees always have the upper hand in employment law, even if they made a bunch of written warnings or came up with other reasons for your term."

Hmm, I'm skeptical on that point. Is it really so black and white?


I did not state that it was black and white, quite the opposite... However, I was stating a generalization made from my personal experience with unlawful separations, workman's compensation and unemployment cases. It is my experience that the 'word' of an employer is never as powerful as the 'word' of an ex-employee. The employee involved is always viewed as the victim first. I have seen cases in which we had proof beyond doubt (pictures and video) of abuse to the benefit and the ex/employee is still able to continue collecting or still receives a negotiated settlement.


Don't know if anyone is still reading these, but in addition to being a bio professor, I am the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Equity & Diversity at my university. One of the things I've done in my position is establish a Career Partners Program for accommodating spouses and partners of faculty. Everyone realizes what a huge issue this is for many if not most academics. We put together a brochure explaining the program, and it's supposed to be handed out to every candidate who interviews for a faculty position. That way, the candidate knows "We are interested in helping you if you are part of a dual career couple", and can either contact me (confidentially if he or she prefers) or has the ground rules for talking to the department chair (and knows that the dept chair also should know them).

It's not perfect, but it's helped a lot with our recruitment. I also do presentations to the faculty about things like "appropriate and inappropriate interview questions", so hopefully the incidence of this will decrease. Some days I am optimistic, some not so much. It's really helpful seeing what kind of problems people are facing around the country.

By Marlene Zuk (not verified) on 30 Aug 2008 #permalink

@ hypatia cade:
"I think it is worth having a conversation starter ready on a topic that you ARE willing to share about.
In my spare time I....
The last good book I read was....
Say did you see that TV show last week...
Realize that you can keep the conversation going on other topics as well."

Nice idea, but those of us who are raising small children while working/studying might find it difficult to answer those questions in a genuine way that does not reveal personal information.

In my spare time I tend to have tea parties with my two year old and play Rock Band with my ten year old. (Or blog under a pseudonym).
The last good book I read that was not work related was a children's book by Peter Sis about his childhood behind the iron curtain.
When I watch TV, it's usually either the news, Animal Planet or Noggin.

Now I could certainly try to find answers that would be more neutral, but then we are back to the same place - trying not to reveal information that could be used against me is really hard.

I have been asked about kids at a recent faculty interview. I said, no, no kids. THe interviewer proceeded to tell me how when I do have kids, that will be the next big thing in my life, and it will be so stressful, but I can balance. I was annoyed-- I had uterine cancer during my doctorate, had a hysterectomy during my post-doc, and still managed to achieve. I think I know the meaning of stress far more than those who whine about missing faculty meetings because of their daughter's ballet recital.

A few female faculty/ staff members have asked me nosy lifestyle questions after I joined the college. I'm very happily single, no boyfriend to display, no hidden romantic partner, nothing, nada. (Work is time consuming and fulfilling. If Mr.Potential crosses my path I'll consider; if not, I'll just continue on.) Why is this such a difficult concept for supposedly intelligent people who were in college during the Women's Movement to believe?

I've been asked whether it bothers me to be hugged. (Ans: as long as I like the person, no, not at all.) The same female faculty member kindly(?) suggested that maybe I could marry an older man with grown children. Boy, did that make my mom MAD!! ("After all the money we spent educating you, you are supposed to spend your life taking care of an older man?") They keep watching and baiting me, trying to figure out "what's wrong". I smile and respond calmly and politely. :)

Haha citrine WTF. If only people realised it isn't really appropriate to pester people about their private lives.

I'm curious about whether it is ok to ask people about their marital/child-rearing status in New Zealand, but I'm not sure how to find this out. It is illegal to discriminate, but I think you'd need to prove they were discriminating here.

By Katherine (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink