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41% of women asked 'inappropriate' questions in job interviews


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New research reveals that 41% of British women and 12% of men have been asked ‘inappropriate’ questions in a job interview.

Respondents to a survey cited questions about their relationship status, sexual orientation, and lifestyle habits, as some of the more commonly asked questions they felt were irrelevant and inappropriate in interview.

Women were most likely to be asked about their marital or relationship status (27%), followed by their age (25%) and their future family plans (23%), whereas although men were also likely to be asked about their marital status (9%), this was followed by lifestyle habits such as drinking and smoking (7%), and their sexuality (7%).

UCLU Women’s Officer Natalie James expressed dismay at the amount of gendered questions reported, telling The National Student that “Women’s groups, both inside and outside the student movement, have spent a lot of time combatting sexism at work by challenging discrimination and harassment, and encouraging the promotion of women to leadership roles, but problems do still exist for women.

“It’s often the so-called small things: assumptions that women of a certain age will want to start a family; the misconceptions that women aren’t interested in more demanding and traditionally-male fields of work; the way women’s use of language is policed and attacked for not being assertive enough.

"We can see the effect of this in the way that women students feel about their future careers – studies show they are significantly less likely than men to feel they will have the opportunities to progress as far as they wish in their chosen career.”

Under the Equality Act 2010, it’s against the law to ask about age, sexual orientation, religious belief, marital status, or whether candidates have, or plan to have, children, during the interview process. It’s also illegal to reject candidates based on these characteristics, as well as on the basis of gender or race.

Some of the common inappropriate questions found by the study are legally discrimination, and therefore liable to legal claims in court, or in an employment tribunal.

Charles Taylor, CEO of Debut Careers, who conducted the study, commented, “We were disappointed to find that so many people still experience inappropriate questions in an interview situation,” and asdded that the gender disparity was particularly worrying.

He added, “We tend to believe that the playing field is becoming more level, but this could well be a mistake according to these results,” which point to subconscious gender biases on the part of interviewers.

Some measures have already been taken against discrimination in employment applications. In October 2015 David Cameron pledged that applications to the Civil Service will now not include candidates’ names in an attempt to limit racial and gender discrimination, after studies showed that applicants perceived as white and male were likely to be considered more favourably.

UCAS will also work to name-blind applications from 2017, and large organisations such as the BBC, NHS, and Deloitte, have pledged to do the same. The move is designed to limit discrimination against candidates with ‘ethnic-sounding’ names.

However once interviews commence, any racial or gender bias on the employer’s part, whether conscious or subconscious, will once again come in to play.

Heather, 20, who has worked in recruitment, offered some insight into the industry. “I have to admit that in my time in recruitment I have seen clients asking us to prioritise men/women for certain types of roles based on their existing team dynamics (i.e. we already have a team of girls working in this department, what we really want is a boy), which means that they will probably not even consider applications of the opposite gender. Unfortunately it just makes it a lot more difficult for applicants in that case, and it’s nothing other than circumstance working against them.”

Though she expressed support for blind CVs, she added, “You’d be surprised how easy it could still be to discriminate even when a CV is ‘blind’ – someone’s having gone to a single sex school is probably a more obvious give-away, but any number of things might be inferred based on someone’s education, hobbies and experience which could work either way.”

I also spoke to graduates and soon-to-be grads, to hear their thoughts on the findings. Women generally expressed concern at the prospect of being judged on their gender, rather than their skills.

Sarah, 21, wouldn’t know what to say if she were asked whether she’s thinking of having children - “I’m too young to expect to know my entire future at the drop of a hat!” - however, she’d be irritated at having been asked a question she perceives as entirely irrelevant.

Whereas Farah, 21, said, “I don't think I'd mind being asked questions like that because I don't plan on working when I have children,” and she’d be happy to let employers know that information in advance – much as that day might be a way off.

While 88% of male respondents said they had never been asked an inappropriate question in a job interview, compared with 59% of women, 7% of men said they had been asked about their sexual preferences.

Luke, 21, said he’d find it “very bizarre” if he were asked about his sexuality in interview. “I just don't really see why it's a relevant question to ask. It's something that you often do get asked in the workplace once you've just started and are getting to know people, but within the context of a job interview I'd just find it unnecessary. Not necessarily offensive or inappropriate, just a very strange thing to be asked outright in a situation where it shouldn't really matter.”

For more information, see GOV.UK, or if you think you may have been discriminated against in hiring procedures, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau for guidance.

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