The other kind of workplace harassment

I just completed a long, irritating online class on sexual harassment in the workplace. Our local Catholic leaders require all workers and volunteers to take these courses every year. “John has a photo of his wife in lingerie on his desk. Is this harassment? What type of harassment is it?” I click “visual,” and they tell me what a genius I am. “Steve tells Sally she needs to loosen up and insists on giving her a back rub, even though she says she doesn’t want it. Is this harassment?” Yes. Right! Again, I’m a genius.

I’m at church only a few hours a week, mostly playing music and leading the choir. Our staff consists of four women and a priest whom we rarely see outside of Mass. I work mostly with kids and old people. I have experienced plenty of sexual harassment in past lives, but not here. Oh wait, there is that one parishioner who touches me all the time . . .

Preventing sexual harassment is important. God knows the Catholic Church needs to clean up its act. We have all heard too much about priests molesting little boys. And I suspect most women in all types of work have been harassed in some way by unwanted touches, comments, or suggestions that they need to cooperate if they want raises, promotions or simply to stay employed. It’s awful. I applaud the “me too” movement, but in my case they are literally preaching to the choir.

One section of the course sparked thoughts that we can apply here at Childless by Marriage. A group of men were seen as harassing a male co-worker when they started making comments about his manliness and his fertility. There’s a related kind of harassment for those of us without children.

For example:

  • Someone makes casual jokes about slow sperm, spoiled eggs, or menopause.
  • A group of women in the break room share stories about their children. When you come in, they either stop talking or ignore you.
  • A mom tells you, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t have children.”
  • A co-worker casually asks, “When are you gonna get knocked up? You’re not getting any younger.”
  • Someone has to work overtime, and you’re elected because you don’t have to rush home to your kids (although you might have something just as important to get home for)
  • You and another man are up for a promotion, but the boss stresses that they prefer a “family man.”
  • Co-workers throw a surprise baby shower at the office. Not only do you have to attend, but you’re expected to buy a gift.

I’m sure you can come up with more examples.

Unlike sexual harassment, none of this is illegal. In most cases, people don’t realize they may be causing you pain—or that not having children doesn’t mean you don’t have something equally important going on outside of work.

Have you experienced these things or other instances of mommy-daddy harassment? Tell us about it in the comments.



29 thoughts on “The other kind of workplace harassment

  1. Sue,

    I’ve experienced many of those things you mentioned. I agree, it’s harassment. When I finished college, I had a hard time finding a job. The most discriminated-against groups were white single males between 25 and 40. Some man sued Proctor & Gamble for this and won $5 million.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I work for myself (and by myself) so not a lot of room for error here. lol Although I’ve had clients make insensitive remarks.

    “Let’s make the appointment for 7:00. That way you can get home to your little ones and spend some time with them before meeting me.”

    Umm? This was suggested by a client who was a real “take charge” mama bear. This mostly annoyed me because she was so assuming and controlling. Her first assumption that I have children and her second assumption that she knew best how to arrange my day. Imagine! Trying to control an appointment with a professional woman by dictating how and when she should take care of her children. Children that didn’t even exist!

    My response was, “Actually I do NOT have any children but I DO have evening plans so, if you are able to make it, a 4:00 appointment would suit me better.”

    Turned out that 7:00 worked better for HER schedule with HER children. She just wanted to put it on me.

    Other times when clients have asked if I have children, they reply with things like, “Oh no wonder you are able to make so many nice things.” The implication that my talents exist in place of children.

    When I’ve been caught working late, “Oh, it must be nice to not have to rush home to kids. No wonder you are able to work so hard.” Well, actually it’s NOT nice that I work 16-hour days. I don’t do it because I have no life outside this office. I do it to pay my damn bills and to reach a few of my goals. Yes, I do have a nice work environment and I’m glad I get to call my own shots. But this isn’t an “easy” life because I don’t have children.

    Other comments are either backhanded or bittersweet. It sort of depends on who utters the words. “Oh you have so many lovely ideas. You would have a been a wonderful mother.” This time the compliment was said with a sweet and honest heart. I did appreciate that recognition even if it hurt a little.

    I recently joined a committee of women and I’m reminded of why I prefer working alone. They all have children. Those comments like, “Do you want my kids? They kept me up half the night,” or when one joked with another one about getting pregnant and the other said, “Good Lord, I don’t think any of us here would want that.” And the recent development of one leaving the rest of the group high and dry. She returned to us (and her responsibilities) and all is well, but the rest of them clucked, “Well, she does have two little ones. I can see why she needed a breather.”

    I am a bit sensitive where these women are concerned. And probably a little judgmental. But it grates me that this woman was given an easy pass simply because of her children. And of course I could NEVER say that out loud because “Well, you don’t have kids, you wouldn’t understand.”



  3. For me it was experiencing different attitudes and discrimination because as a divorced single woman I was doing more of the caring for my parents. So I was a director in a team of seven others. The colleague with children got every school holiday off, no question. He got to leave at 4 pm every Wednesday in term time to take the children to football matches – no question. Whereas the only time I got was the legal minimum – time off for emergency events. The assumption was that I was single and without kids and therefore didn’t “need” flexibility. Caring for elders doesn’t enjoy the same legal protections and entitlements as maternity and parental leave. Pro-natal discrimination comes in all shapes and sizes.


    • AnonymousA, thank you for sharing this. You make an important point. As someone who is trying to juggle my job and care for my father, I can really identify. We all have other things to deal with besides children in our lives, and employers need to start recognizing that.


  4. I never would have thought of it as “harassment” before reading this — but yeah, you’re right, in some cases, it really can be harassment! Thank you for giving me something to think about, Sue!


    • I have often thought of this as harassment and find it refreshing that this is finally being addressed. I have experienced this in not only the workplace but also church and in social circles among other women. The worst case of this happened while I was working as a salaried manager for a large retailer. There was another manager, (who was male) who was harassed like me (i.e.-we were called in on scheduled days off, expected to stay long hours beyond our schedule and even called in on vacation time). The common denominator was that neither of us was married and neither had children. After addressing the store manager, who felt her actions were okay because after all our time out of work isn’t important because we aren’t tending to the care of kids like the other managers, we both went to our district HR rep and reported harassment. The problem was corrected and never brought up again but we were treated differently and more harshly afterward for our actions to report this.


  5. Hi Sue, gotta love those mandatory baby showers. I actually don’t mind forking over money for a group gift, whether it’s work or church; I just don’t want to sit for an hour ooohing and aaaahing over baby clothes and toys because it is a painful reminder of what I wanted but wasn’t able to achieve. One thing I didn’t see mentioned is the visiting mom (co-worker’s wife or co-worker visiting the office to show off the baby) breast-feeding in the bathroom which has happened to me. When I heard the noises, I turned and went to a different bathroom. I know this may sound wimpy for some but when it invokes such deep pain, you do what you have to do to stay sane. Another thing that comes to mind is I read on askthemanager about a new mom who wasn’t sure if it was okay if she held her baby while on conference calls for work. She said her baby is quiet but if she has to pump breast milk or feed her baby, then there may be noises and she was concerned that might not sound very professional. (A deep thinker, I can tell.)

    All I could think of was those poor conference call attendees who either do not like children or just had a miscarriage and the last thing they need to hear is a baby. I imagine one of them saying, “Sorry but can you do something with the baby so we can focus on work?” and the new mom getting offended at such a request because it implies not everyone is as smitten as she is with her baby. And if this is someone trying to sell or support a product, and they can’t say anything because they need to make the sale or support the customer, then they are faking liking the baby.

    I was pretty clueless in my 20’s but I think even I could figure out that there is a line in the sand between professional and personal life. It’s there for a reason, and should be honored because we don’t know what else other people are going through.


    • Silver, I forgot about the visiting moms with babies! I always hated that. Everyone goes crazy, work stops, and I’m left going, “What about the deadline?” It would be very weird to be on a conference call where breastfeeding is happening. Work and personal lives do need to be separate most of the time.


  6. Yeah, visiting babies. I hated it. I used to be out on an early lunch, or popping up to the next floor to see a colleague. Once I even took some hours I had owing to go into work after they had left.


  7. My husband was told by his brothers to “prove he was a man” and get me pregnant. That sort of comment is not uncommon!
    I was told by a colleague I should go and have babies. As if that would solve the discrimination I already felt at our company.
    Fortunately, in NZ no boss with any brains would actually admit to preferring a “family man” as it would be completely illegal.
    A SIL told me that no one ever wished on their death bed that they had travelled more. The implication being that family was the most important thing, and I didn’t have it. (Interestingly, my elderly FIL just admitted he regretted not travelling more.) (And yes, we use two Ls in travelling/ed in NZ! lol)
    I could go on. All the subtle put-downs, the omissions (my last post touched on this), the assumptions everyone has kids, the implication that those of us without kids don’t have any investment in the future, etc., etc. If it isn’t harassment, it is definitely bullying, or at best, insensitive.


  8. Oftentimes, discussion at work turns to babies and then everyone starts comparing births, and pregnancies and I’m forced to listen to it all because I can’t just leave. I have to continue working.


  9. I called my boss out on her pro-natalism. I’ve never experienced so much anger and hostility. In the past, a co-worker had brought her kids in when they were sick or had days off school. Luckily, they have grown up. As part of a tour for a potential new employee my boss was excitedly explaining how we used to set up a sick kids section of the office. I said, “Well, we’re more friendly to all fertility levels now.” Later, while I was trying to explain how it sounded like she was inviting the new employee to bring children to work and what a distraction that would be, she got livid. Now, she treats me as if I hate all children, makes snide comments on how I must find them “so distasteful.” I honestly wish I had never said anything.


  10. I’ve experienced a sort of reverse version of the second one. Instead of the mothers in my department stopping their conversations and ignoring me, my boss at the time insisted that I sit and talk with them about family “to bond” instead of doing my work, even though there was a ton of work (and it was more constructive to “bond” with employees of other departments). It was a hospital. I can only hope that her future caregivers are busy “bonding” over unrelated issues while she is being neglected.


  11. I’ve had people stop into my office and, without the conversation even remotely leading in this direction, ask me if I have kids. When I say that I don’t have children, they get this sad look on their face–you know the concerned look with the head cocked to the side. I sometimes even get “Oh, I’m sorry” as the response, as if I have said that I have some incurable disease. It’s crazy. I second the post above about the visiting moms and how everyone stops everything that they are doing to run out and stare at the babies. One of them tried to hand me her baby (another assumption–because you are a woman you will want to hold her baby). I politely declined. I usually cooo at them for five minutes and then sneak away back into my office.


  12. I suffered serious bullying while working in the financial services industry. My female boss, who became pregnant, decided that I had my eye on her job so she conducted an unbelievably vindictive smear campaign against me which included telling a lot of colleagues that I was madly jealous of her pregnancy and that I was bitter and twisted because I happened to be single at the time. She stopped talking to me and pretended I didn’t exist for weeks on end. I didn’t want her job, and her baby talk (which I had politely listened to with a smile) induced nothing but feelings of boredom rather than jealousy! It was a truly awful episode in my life. I wouldn’t have believed that a woman could be quite so vile to another. It led to me going off with stress-related symptoms but ultimately the bad-mouthing back-fired on her and I found out who my true friends were.


  13. I run my own business, with more years of experience in design and buying illustration than this potential client had of being a parent, but she still asked me what experience I had for the teenage market (where her book was aimed at). Needless to say, when she asked for free work too, she was promptly dropped!

    It does affect freelancers too. Many networking groups have the online or in-person conversation about doing it for their children or heaven forbid the school holidays, those annual events that never cease to surprise parents.


  14. I’ve been lambasted about riding a motorbike to and from a place of work. “Shouldn’t you be thinking about having babies instead of running around on motorbikes?” by male colleagues, ugh…

    I’ve been asked if I am planning on having a family at an interview. I asked if male candidates were asked that question too.

    I’ve been approached by the head of HR at a company I worked for (whilst I was photocopying documents in a corridor, minding my own business, getting on with my work in an open area that wasn’t at all private) and asked if I planned on doing any more IVF treatment–to which I promptly responded why would the head of HR think it appropriate to ask me (in such a public place) such a deeply personal, intrusive question and if she wanted to ask me those sorts of questions schedule a meeting with me, make it official, but make sure male members of the company were also questioned along the same lines if she did so (This was the same lady who asked the question at the interview above. Ugh.)

    I’ve never had a back to work interview that you’re supposed to have after any time off sick (after I’ve returned to work being off sick after baby loss), never had phased return to work after baby loss despite physical issues afterwards and have been thrown straight back into demanding jobs both physical and mental and shift work–and been expected to just show willing and get on with it. There seems to be no thought or compassion to the physical or emotional issues a woman can face after a pregnancy loss.

    I’ve been press-ganged into attending a work “family fun day” where all of my colleagues had children and all the kids partook in events and the parents all bonded over the shared experiences whilst myself and my husband remained on the periphery throughout. I never attended any more after this.

    I’ve had managers and supervisors question why I haven’t excelled and gone further in any career. My history has been peppered with baby loss, infertility treatment, endometriosis and grieving, which aren’t exactly conducive to building a successful career. It’s not really something I’ve ever felt I could be honest about because I felt it would go against me in the workplace.

    And as usual, I’ve been the one picking up the slack, being seconded to different roles to cover maternity leave and the one starting early or staying late because I didn’t have kids. I blogged about this recently myself.


  15. When working at the office I usually I listen to my music using headphones in order to avoid all the daily children stories from my coworkers. However, we have a team WhatsApp group and that’s a nightmare. Many of them share their family pics and activities even when it is supposed to be used for coordinating work stuff, meetings or problems outside business hours (we work in IT, system admins).


  16. Just reading this has made me realise that I never had a back-to-work interview after being off because one of my younger sisters died from cancer. I cared for my sister, too, while working full time, which was very hard but I wouldn’t not have done it because she was my sister. My last two or three 1 to 1’s were cancelled, when I’m meant to have one a month. I seem to only have them once every three months at most. I noticed other colleagues seem to take longer sometimes at theirs. If anyone should be getting more support, it should be me because my sister only died a matter of months ago. My boss has two kids, of course, and there is chat in the office at times about kids which I’m excluded from. As for the comment you don’t know what it is like to have kids, I have said to someone you don’t know what it’s like not to have kids, but not at work lol. However if someone said that to me at work, I would say that back to them. It’s all equality and equal opportunities now, so why not give as good as you get 🙂


  17. Sue,

    I know all too well about mandatory “Baby Showers.” I’ve only been to one and shall we say it was more than my masculine proclivities could withstand.
    I’d rather eat Brussels sprouts with liver on the side.


  18. Nearly six years ago, my husband had a stroke. He was in hospital for four months, learning how to walk again.

    The hospital decided to discharge him the same weekend I was moving my mother in with me. I should explain that Mum had severe mobility problems because of osteoporosis, and she had dementia.

    Also, I was in full-time employment.

    Mum moved in. Husband was discharged. I tried to cope with the fact that there was still work being done on our home to make it invalid-ready.

    Two nurses came out to check that I didn’t need help. (They decided I didn’t. Apparently I could manage fine on my own.)

    When I said that I didn’t know how I was going to manage, working full-time and looking after two disabled adults, one nurse looked at me scornfully and said, “Oh, I’m just the same. I work and I have two children.”


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