male coworkers think I won’t return to work after my pregnancy — and won’t shut up about it

A reader writes:

I’m currently the youngest member of my team and the only female non-manager within my team (I’m 30, but still get carded for items you have to be 18 to purchase). Presently, I’m 6 months pregnant and due to the economy and such, I’m the breadwinner of the house while my husband is finishing out his MBA program.

My all male coworkers have started bombarding me with doubt when I mention that I will be returning post-maternity leave. I have expressed my exact return time and intention MULTIPLE times, to be met with: “Well, when you have a kid everything changes,” “You’re a childless person pretending to be an expert on children,” “All the chemical in a woman’s body when that kid hits the ground means that you stop being a separate entity,” etc. In short, I’m now beyond annoyed and feel harassed.

I feel like HR within my company is only there to protect upper management and will not do anything except set up a meeting with me and my coworkers for me to say “stop it,” but they are not listening anyway. I pointed out today how offensive it is to have these things said to me when within our department (not team) all the women are working mothers. I also pointed out how making those comments touches on a personal issue and how coworkers are not aware of everyone’s circumstances, etc. so they should not be making judgments. I got a grudging apology from one coworker, but he didn’t seem to understand what he’d done wrong. Any suggestions?

Do they think no women work once they have kids? And since these men sound like they have children themselves, you might ask them what the hell they’re doing at work.

For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect that these guys are just clueless. In their own heads, they’re probably being totally inoffensive and maybe even bonding with you about your impending parenthood. However, they’re creating an environment where you reasonably feel that you’re being reduced to your reproductive organs and devalued as a professional, and the fact that they don’t realize that doesn’t mean that you have to put up with it.

For starters, you should get really direct. I would say, “I’m done having this conversation. Not only have you made your opinion clear multiple times, but making assumptions about me based on the fact that I happen to be a woman is offensive. I’m telling you clearly that I don’t want to hear another single word about my pregnancy or how you think I will respond to parenthood.”

And if you actually feel harassed, not just annoyed, you could add, “Frankly, you may not realize that your comments are crossing the line into legally problematic behavior, but I am telling you right now that they are. This is the last time I’m going to tell you that it needs to stop.”

And you say this in a serious, no-nonsense tone. You do not do that thing that some of us like to do where we tone down something serious by trying to make it sound lighthearted. (This is essential. Do not negate your words by using a tone that contradicts them.)

There’s a very good chance that this will stop it. But if it continues after that, you should speak to someone in HR, because pregnancy is a legally protected class (like race, religion, etc.) and therefore these guys are exposing the company to legal liability in a similar way to if they were constantly harping on your race or religion. You say you feel HR is only there to protect upper management, but this is about protecting upper management. If you were to sue (not that I’m recommending that), you’d be suing the company itself, not these guys personally, and thus it’s very much something HR would be concerned with.

Of course, if you complain to HR, then you’ll forever be the overly sensitive person who made a mountain out of a molehill (in other people’s eyes). A more low-key approach might be to frame it a bit differently to HR: “I wanted to bring this to your attention because they’re exposing the company to legal liability by these kinds of comments, and I figured you’d want to know that.” In other words, you’re not making an official complaint, but you’re pointing out something that obviously the company would care about. This will work with some HR people but not others; some will treat anything you tell them as an official complaint no matter what disclaimers you put on it, but some will get what you’re saying and put a stop to it without treating it as you having made a formal complaint.

By the way, if your boss is one of the people making these comments, then you really need to escalate it, because if your boss is convinced that you’re not returning after maternity leave simply because you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be subjected to some sort of adverse employment action, not just infuriating comments. Good luck!

Want to read an update to this post? The reader’s update several months later is here.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Joanna Reichert*

    Working with a male-dominant team, I could almost see how they’d think this is simply harmless chatter. And it furthermore sucks that any reaction or emotions from the OP would likely be dismissed as ’emotional’ or ‘hormone-driven’.

    But I agree – take a hard line here, do not engage them except to clearly state that they’re being extremely inappropriate, and please do take this to HR immediately.

    1. Sarah*

      Having worked in a male dominant field for my entire career I can tell you right now the ONLY way to get them to stop is to exaggerate how you will be after the baby. Just be sarcastic and agree with what they’re saying only suggest it’ll be worse.
      OR – you can tell them to STFU being VERY direct. After saying that DON’T let them off the hook. GO AFTER THEM.. let them know that if they think your hormones will be WORSE than they are while you’re pregnant then they are in for a surprise. LOL! Men are such noobs

      Either I’ve been very lucky or it’s just my personality where guys just know never to “f” with me… But I never seem to have a problem (I have a feeling it’s my personality :)).

      1. You do realize*

        Wow, the two of you are being just as sexist as the DA’s that she is working with!

        1. Long Time Admin*

          @You do realize – it sounds like you have never worked in an all-male environment, or perhaps you ARE a man, and don’t think things like this can be a big deal.

          If the OP started telling these guys how they’re going be acting and feeling when their prostate problems start, you can be darn sure HR would be involved in a heartbeat.

          Not all men are like this, but in an all-male environment, it’s highly likely. To be fair, an all-female work evironment is no walk in the park, either.

          1. Anonymous*

            It shouldn’t matter if You Do Realize is a man, woman, or other gender, what is being pointed out is how sexist you’re being by assuming that an all-male or all-female workplace will be a certain way just because of the genders of your coworkers.

            1. Anonimous*

              What planet do you live on? All male or all female environments are “a certain way” because men and women behave differently when they’re in one. It’s not an assumption, it’s fact.

              It only becomes sexism when a jugement is attached to it. For example, “men on the average have greater upper body strength” = fact, “women are weaklings” = sexism.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                All-male or all-female environments may tend to operate in certain ways, but that does not mean that they do, across the board. This is the essence of prejudice — assuming that people have certain traits because of their membership in a larger group. They may be statistically more likely to, but not everyone will and you should still deal with them as individuals.

  2. Anonymous*

    They are men – you need to be clear and direct. That’s when the lightbulb goes off in their heads.

    Plus, I wouldn’t complain to HR, just like AAM said, you would seem overly-sensitive. And if they are saying it in a jokingly way, I think it sounds like they are just trying to make some chit-chat with you. Once you go on leave, you won’t have to deal with this anymore, anyway.

  3. Irish Reader*

    What concerns me is that these comments could continue after she gets back from leave. :-/ But I agree a direct ‘back off guys’ is best, you can’t make it any clearer than that. And more fool them if they persist with it!

  4. Mikey*

    As a woman who has always worked with men, I think you need to react to this like a man. Look them in the eye, say what you think, and don’t use that little question lilt at the end of the sentence like women do?

    You need to say what you think in unequivocal, male terms. Then stop talking.

    I wouldn’t mention anything to HR….even a “just thought you should know” is easy enough to recognize as a informal compliant. It’s actually worse than a real complaint: it gets you no action, but gets you labeled as a potential problem. I’d save the HR involvement in case this stuff turns into something more concrete, like they promote the guy instead of you.

  5. Nethwen*

    My question is what to do immediately after the response AAM suggests. Of course, this has something to do with how the man responds, but what should the person saying “stop” do after delivering the message? Stare at the man until he walks away? Walk away without waiting for a reply? Reply to any responses other than apology with, “I’m not discussing this” (which is a form of continuing the discussion)? Return to working and ignore the man until he goes away? What?

    1. You do realize*

      Just glare at them. If you walk away, they will see you as week. Basically you are challenging them for authority in the relationship. If they say anything other than an apology, glare. And if they are dumb enough to keep up the talk, rip them a new one and explain that if it continues you will file a complaint and part of the settlement will be them receiving their pink slips!

    2. Natalie*

      I would probably just move on to whatever the task of the moment is. If they apologize, you just say thank you and change topics.

      1. CallMeAl*

        When engaging with a male human, you must exert your dominance. Beat your chest, grunt, and urinate a little on the ground. It never fails.

        Next up on National Geographic HD, witness the human male in his natural habitat….the basement.

        1. Anonymous*

          Good lord! basement? We’re not moles. A tavern would be much more appropriate.

          Also, the rest is not necessary, except maybe the grunting part. But we might call your bluff, so have mace at the ready.

        2. BCW*

          Yes, again, lets paint all men one way, because thats not sexist. Lets revert this.

          Guys, if you are engaging with a female human, whine, cry, get emotional, and don’t use logic. Those are the only ways they’ll understand.

          Doesn’t sound good does it?

  6. Anonymous*

    The next thing to do after you’ve said your piece is change the topic to something work-related.

    In fact, to the extent possible, try only to discuss work and not your personal life or anything baby-related. It’s helped me to look at the working dads around the office. Most have a small photo on their desk, and maybe a short anecdote prepared about how their kids are doing, but otherwise, they discuss work at work.

    That said, depending on how you feel about this, you may want to find a way to mention that you are the breadwinner and that won’t change post-baby. If the message gets through, it could make them realize that you are serious about coming back.

    Congratulations on the baby!

  7. Clobbered*

    “Oh yeah? Wanna bet $100?” That will shut them up.

    Seriously, the comments you quote (like the one about being an expert on women with children) make me worry that you are actually *debating* the issue with them. If so, this is a bad idea on many levels – first, it might make them think you are open to receiving their opinion, and secondly, it is a pointless argument as it cannot be resolved with facts.

    I suspect that ship has sailed in your case by now, but the best thing to do when first approached with those kind of questions is a non-committal shrug and total indifference in pursuing the topic.

    1. Anonimous*

      I was thinking the same thing. Most of the above seems to be making a mountain out of a mole hill.

  8. Marie*

    Playing the devil’s advocate here: is it possible these guys were not trying to be offensive with their remarks? Granted, their remarks are stupid, and I totally understand why the OP of this thread would be extremely annoyed, but it *is* possible her male co-workers were well-meaning (although very clumsy). In any case, it’s important for the OP to be very direct with these guys, letting them know their remarks are out of line.

    1. Katie*

      Well-meaning comments become offensive when the person who is offended asks the well-intentioned to stop and they don’t.

  9. jane*

    The author is exactly right saying that “HR is only there to protect upper management”, and so it’s up to her to maintain her working persona and relationships with co-workers. Suing the company for harassment of male co-workers is rarely worth the hassle.

    It is good to discuss work plans for after the baby (next year, etc..) is a good idea. Not just the date she plans to return to work, but what she and the group will be doing: “These projects will be nearing completion [that month], so I’ll have to focus on …. It would also be a good time to start planning this event. Hopefully, we’ll have hired that intern we’ve been searching for by then, so she’ll be able to take on social media marketing for this project.”

    Putting down her foot and stopping the conversation about what happens to other women after they have kids is also a reasonable thing to do. She can also go on the offensive: “What do *you* know about how women feel after having children? How many times have *you* been pregnant? All this pregnancy talk is taking away from *your* work, is there something you’re trying to tell us?”

    She may not get an apology, but she should be able to stop the discussions about her pregnancy. I also found it useful to avoid the ‘baby’ talk herself – don’t mention “maternity leave”, say “I will be out for X weeks”. Do not say “my due date is …”, say “I will be available through this month”.

  10. Anonymous*

    OP here! I appreciate all the feedback! I have worked in male dominated industry for a long time, but this just hit all new levels of ridiculous (IMO). For what it’s worth, I’ve not been debating with the coworkers and they have started each conversation about this, particularly after project meeting in which I state my availability and my intent to complete X, Y, and Z by a set date. They come up and go “So you’re coming back by X time?” “yes, that is the plan” and then comments start firing. I’ve even tried just stating “interesting, but I will be returning regardless” (or something similar). It’s just ridiculous. For the record I have informed my manager of my issues, and that I will be handling things the next time anyone mentions anything. It’s just mind blowing to have to deal with this from a group of married men with children and wives that have jobs!!!

    1. Katie*

      I think I’d go with thinly veiled threats. “I assume you understand why it’s unprofessional and completely inappropriate to argue that because one of your coworkers is a woman, she is incapable of knowing what she wants. Unless you really want to press the argument that women have weak minds and are slaves to their hormones, I strongly suggest this discussion stop immediately and never happen again.”

      They may still go behind your back and talk about it (or about what a hormonal b you are), but it will stop the conversation from happening in your presence. Maybe it might even sink in that questioning a woman’s judgment due to her gender is sexist, though I wouldn’t put money on it.

      1. Anonimous*

        So prove them wrong by coming back and being as good a team member as you were before the pregnancy. What’s the big deal?

        That’s what a guy would do, and that’s what they probably expect from you. BTW, that’s what equality looks like.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Noooo. Equality looks like not making assumptions about women in the workplace that you wouldn’t make about a man. When men start getting told that they won’t return after their baby is born, then you’d have a point!

          1. Anonimous*

            If she’s being denied opportunities, important projects, and promotions, then I’ll agree with you. If she’s being teased like she’s one of the guys, and she’s over reacting, and she goes to HR, she’ll never be considered an equal again. They’ll just say it when she’s not around and treat her with kid gloves when she’s in the room – in essence, she’ll prove that she needs special treatment.

            Since I wasn’t there, I don’t really know what’s really going on – all the nuance, context, body language, and tone of voice is missing – maybe they’ve really crossed the line and should be punished, but maybe they’re just being guys. We need more information.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Well, that’s why I recommended that she deal with herself. But teasing someone repeatedly about something gender-specific, after she’s asked you to cut it out, is as inappropriate as if they were teasing someone about race or religion or national origin. It doesn’t belong in the workplace, and a smart workplace would want to put a stop to it — because those guys are creating legal liability for the company.

              1. Anonymous*

                OP here-
                Situation dealt with. One guy acts weird about it- but he’s also the guy that doesn’t understand announcing “The ladies at the other site are HOT!!!” in a meeting is inappropriate…so I feel any efforts toward him are wasted. Sincere apology from other major offender, who acknowledged he was just stepping all over himself in an attempt to be funny about the pregnancy and coming off like a jerk. So I call it a win.
                I did notice down at the bottom that some people seem convinced that women have a baby and leave the workplace immediately. So I guess it’s nice to know this isn’t just MY office!

    2. CallMeAl*

      It doesn’t really matter what the response is….it’s not like you’ll be returning to work once the baby comes.

      I kid! I kid! I’ll show myself out.

    3. Dataceptionist*

      So having recently had a baby, I’m going to throw a different idea out there that if they *are* fathers, they may be trying to impart the knowledge that everything changes after you have a baby. yes everyone tells you, and you do know that everything will be different but its really indescribable how life is so irreversibly changed. And as the mother, the one who has carried the baby, your feelings are naturally going to be different to the father and things can be much more intense than you ever expected.
      I’m not saying they aren’t being indelicate with their comments, just that perhaps you are being excessively defensive and maybe approach it differently?
      I honestly think about life completely differently now, there was pre-baby, and there is post baby.
      Good Luck with it :)

  11. Rachel*

    I would avoid making it an argument. Just go on talking about things that will happen after you get back. If they make a comment about you not coming back then just respond with something like “Well then you’ll be surprised to see me when I walk in the door in October” and just move on from the subject.

    1. fposte*

      There’s also the patient and slightly weary “Yes, so you’ve said, Bill” (and then, as you say, move on from the subject). That can take some of the “ooh, aren’t I a cutup” thrills out of the situation, and it’s a good tone to practice as a soon-to-be parent anyway :-)

  12. Anonymous*

    Say “Are you saying that because I’m a woman, because if you are you know HR would find that highly inappropriate.”

  13. Interviewer*

    The next time one of them dares to voice out loud some unfounded opinion about your pregnancy, you can respond, “I wouldn’t make that assumption if I were you,” and then continue on with the work-related discussion. Just shut them down every time. Maybe they’ll get the picture eventually.

  14. Jamie*

    My response to this would be based on whether or not any of the offending co-workers had any (albeit unofficial) potential to affect your actual responsibilities.

    I.e. if they could divvy up projects you were working on and squeeze you out if they were operating under the false assumption that you weren’t coming back. In that case I would take it a lot more seriously than if they were just a bunch of people making stupid comments.

    Don’t get me wrong – the comments have no place at work and you shouldn’t have to put up with them – but if they do have the power to influence real aspects of your job I would be a lot quicker to throw down some preemptive warnings to HR.

  15. Gene*

    Male in a male-dominated field POV here.

    At my workplace of ~40 employees we average about 5-7 females; 4 long-term (>15 years); I’ve been here almost 25. And except for one retirement, every single one who left here was pregnancy related and with one exception they all said, “I’ll be coming back after the baby is born.” Of those ~10 women only one actually came back, but she was back for about a month of phone calls to the sitter at least once an hour to check before she left to “take care of the baby.” Two of the long-term women did have kids (one had three), came back, and stayed.

    So, my data set of 12 women with 14 pregnancies shows me there’s a 14-17% chance that any given woman will return to work long-term after pregnancy. So personally I’d be concerned that the return would either not happen or be problematic.

    1. Jamie*

      As a female in a male dominated industry this may be surprising, but I agree with you.

      I’ve seen it happen time after time, but that doesn’t make pregnancy any less protected…and IMO for good reason. Those who need/want to continue their careers shouldn’t be punished for others who ended up opting out.

      And yes – a woman may fully plan on returning and then change her mind after the baby is born. The same way a man could change his mind after an extended leave, although there isn’t a typical life issue which generally requires men to take this kind of leave so it isn’t as common an occurrence.

      But to play the odds and assume someone isn’t coming back really does a disservice to all the women who do come back and pick up where they left off.

      Even if the men feel they are stating the obvious they put their company at risk of litigation by saying it aloud. For that reason alone they should stop.

    2. A. Nony Mouse*

      Most diet attempts fail. Would you tell an overweight person not to bother eating salads, as it’s not going to work anyway? Statistics really don’t matter here. The coworkers shouldn’t be telling the OP that she doesn’t know her own mind.

    3. Jane*

      This is just your experience. There are plenty of people whose experience with their female co-workers having children is different. However, the issue is not about statistics.

      Insisting to the woman that she is wrong about her own life plans is at the very least disrespectful, and borders on harassment. She is not responsible for all other women who said they would come back to work but did not.

    4. FrauTech*

      Unfortunately as soon as one or two women don’t return back to work suddenly the onus is on every other woman to “prove” she will come back like it matters. I’ve known men who’ve given 1 days notice and just quit their job, but it doesn’t become a man’s problem. For each woman who doesn’t come back the dudes get more and more suspicious with every future pregnant woman. Or with every future married woman. Or with any women. That all we want to do is leave and have babies.

      But I don’t blame the women on this. Men’s choices are not similarly questioned. I’d have to say personally shame worked for me when I was being pseudo- sexually harassed by men who otherwise “meant well” or were “nice guys.” When they ask you when you’re coming back don’t say “that’s the plan” just say “yes.” If they say things like “are you sure?” say “well I’m not sure I won’t get hit by a bus tomorrow but if you focused more on this project and less on the baby in my uterus I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about.” Or if they start making comments about how your mind will change or hormones or whatever say “wow you read that in Oprah? I’d prefer to talk about the project but if you want to get all touchy feely maybe YOU should take some time off.” They’re trying to make you look emotional and not in control. Don’t let them. Stand by your convictions that you’re coming back. Your husband’s situation is immaterial and none of their business. Turn it around on them. Make them look emotional when they bring it up. Turn the subject back to work.

      It’s a fine line of insulting/shaming them. From another guy they would just take it in stride but the minute you don’t patiently listen to their concerns they’ll get a lot more offended and maybe call you a bitch or say you’re in a bad mood. Keep turning it around. Keep focusing on work and on the project. Tell THEM not to get emotional. Then when they chat with you again keep it calm and neutral like nothing happened. Yes it gets you labelled as mean or bitch (though they’ll still be friendly, trust me). I think it’s worth it in that people stop thinking they can push you around or question your personal decisions.

    5. Student*

      Female in a male-dominated field POV here. I present the counterargument to your data.

      I’m a grad student, and I’ve watched several women at several different career levels leave soon after having a child. The ones I was close enough to inquire about all gave roughly this response for leaving.

      “I can’t stand the knuckle-dragging men treating me like crap. I’m going where I’ll be appreciated – to my family for now, maybe to a major career change once the baby is weened/in school. Not all the men at work are a pain, but no one ever tells off the ones who are, and no one ever has my back. ”

      The first time I heard this, I was shocked. The second time I heard it, I was saddened. The third time I heard it, I was expecting it. But, the fourth time I heard it, I found myself nodding along….

  16. Interviewer*

    I’m in a professional services field, where the support staff is dominated by women, and the professionals are about 75% male. In my role in HR, we’ve had about 35 people go out for maternity leave since I started 4 years ago – a mix of professionals and support staff – including 2 pregnancies of my own during that time. I can think of 2 that didn’t come back.

  17. Anon*

    If you’ve only ever worked with 10 women, I’m sure the incidence of women not coming back after pregnancy would be high. However, you don’t have a representative sample of the general population and so while it’s interesting anecdotally it’s not particularly significant across the whole population of pregnant, working women.

    I work at a company that is dominated by women, I’ve been here 12 years and there are approximately 35-50 women in my department at any given time. With that many women, we’ve had LOTS of pregnancies. I’m sure there’s been 1 or 2 over the years who decided to stay home after saying they were coming back but I can’t think of any. We’ve had a few women who came back for about a year (or less) and then decided to stay home but that’s it. And I can assure you that despite the plethora of parents around here, that my job is not particularly family friendly – it’s largely neutral from my single woman POV.

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