childare and interview questions

The perennial chestnut: Childcare and interview questions

Interviewers need to clean up their acts on childcare and interview questions

We are constantly inundated with soundbites from high-profile women such as Marissa Meyer, Anne- Marie-Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg  who vie for media attention in the business stratosphere. Now we have the  ex-CEO of Burberry drifting or jumping into the fray, I’m not sure which. The topic – that thorny childcare interview questions.

Angela Ahrendts, one of the highest paid female executives says she tries to lead by example:

We have a lot of women working here and I always tell them they are mothers first. Those children are their legacy and they have partners and that’s a big obligation.”

This is all fine and dandy with a seven-figure salary and massive IPO pay outs. But let’s think for a moment on what happens to mere female mortals in the trenches where balance takes on a different more mundane form, centred on the every day demands of family life. Grocery shopping, after school activities, homework, dinner. How do these women handle their roles as mothers when they are grilled about it from the earliest stages in the hiring process? Some are even questioned before they have children. 

Women and family planning

Many young women ask in interview coaching  what they should say if they are asked about their family planning ideas and other inappropriate childcare interview questions.   I always tell women:

  • Stay calm.
  • Ask for the question to be repeated or clarified. This gives the interviewer to reflect and hopefully withdraw realizing they have over stepped the mark
  • Re-frame the question “I’m not sure if I want children, but I’m glad you asked me. Are you concerned that  if I have children it will reduce my commitment to ….. Please let me reassure you…

Women should also ask themselves if they want to work for such an organisation. Maybe not.

But what do women with children encounter? The single mother, the divorcée, the woman who can’t afford to lose her salary or a woman who simply wants to reach her potential?  

And the Dads? What are their responsibilities and roles? Isn’t the very phrase “working mother” rooted in an antiquated concept, when women now make up 50% of the workforce?childcare and interview questions

I actually have no problem with the ex-CEO of Burberry telling women they are mothers first. As long as she is giving male employees the same line about their status as fathers. I think an open dialogue on non-workplace issues including childcare, is an excellent idea at an interview or in the workplace.That is if the idea is discussed with both male and female candidates or employees.

Discriminatory questioning

Yet, it would  appear that despite statutory regulations,  women  are still being asked  blatantly discriminatory questions in interviews about their roles as mothers. Even by other women.  One senior sales executive in the tele-communications  sector told me: “My husband is fifteen years older than me and now retired. I am the sole breadwinner. We have four kids between us in our blended family.  I was asked  what would happen to my kids if I was travelling four days a week.”  She went on to tell me  how difficult it had been to persuade the hiring manager that her husband and nanny could manage in her absence and without her salary they would starve and be homeless.”‘That seemed to work ” she said only semi- jokingly.  

An MBA candidate with a scientific PhD and strong commercial  experience recounted how hard it was to convince potential employers that her husband would be willing to re-locate to follow her career.  She was  quick to report that they have never asked her partner the same question. I always ask candidates whether male or female to discuss with their partners any assignment where re-location would be an issue.

Another candidate explained how she and her husband interviewed at the same company   “How will you manage childcare if you take this job” they asked her. The same question was not posed to her husband. Her husband was offered a position, she was not, and he went on to refuse the role.

In fact in the many years I have been  involved in executive search, I recall few occasions when men were questioned  in any detail about their child care arrangements. One was a widower, in a critical function, with five kids. I always wonder if a single mother would have been afforded the same consideration.  Others were focused on package negotiations for school fees and housing allowances. But these men had already been offered the positions.

Keeping pace with cultural shifts

There are wider cultural shifts taking place and organisations need to recognise those developments. Life is becoming more complicated for many, with two career or two income families becoming the norm with a rise in the divorce rate impacting career flexibility.  By 2025 the majority of the workforce will be Millenials. It is well researched that they have different career expectations.

I am not actually in favour of outlawing discussion on childcare in the interview process. I think it adds value – as long as it is a question posed to all. I would be delighted to hear from any men who have been quizzed about their child care arrangements.

A Sheryl Sandberg quote which most resonated with me  is “Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women.” 

 When will we use the expression “working father?” 

9 thoughts on “The perennial chestnut: Childcare and interview questions

  1. Judy

    So glad I now live in a country (Canada) where such questions are illegal. However that’s not to say employers don’t ask themselves these questions during the hiring process. It’s disheartening that parenting is still seen as the woman’s responsibility. Don’t these people know how children get made?

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Judy – thanks for your comment. Despite there being statutory obligations in many countries sadly individual managers still ask inappropriate and illegal questions I agree -let’s hope for change on parenting ideas!

  2. Vanessa

    Great post which addresses so many important issues, Dorothy. Thanks for putting into writing what so many of us experience in our professional lives.

      1. Dorothy Dalton

        I thought I should let you know that I am receiving a high number of comments privately from women who are routinely quizzed in interviews on this issue and on family planning. They are located in countries where it is considered to be illegal.

  3. sherrellcrow

    Spot on Dorothy! Thanks for this provocative piece. I sincerely feel hurt for for my wife, whom I feel has been discriminated against in her past positions. Seemingly, she has been forced to look for less-challenging roles because of the perception that she somehow will have to relegate our kids to second place. Also, gives me pause to think how I may have unknowingly contributed by not always fairly sharing the load.

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