According to the (US-centric) "The Professor Is In." Facebook live podcast it is illegal/problematic to ask a candidate in a job interview about family - specifically, it is a problem to ask about how a spouse would react to your appointment or what a spouse would do for work if you are hired. Nevertheless, I have often been asked these types of questions!

How should I respond to these questions as an early stage career academic? Are, they, in fact, illegal?

I am interested mainly in the US context, but I would also like to know if my reaction should differ if I were interviewing in other countries. Is there an answer that is safe in all contexts?

The webinar I watched indicates that candidates should know these questions are illegal but should not complain if they want to have the best shot possible of getting the job.

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    @MJeffryes if it is possible I would like to collect data for USA; Australia, New Zeland, Greece, Germany, Swiss and Hong Kong... these are all places that I applied. – SSimon May 31 '18 at 16:26
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    Martial status is protected in some areas and young couples are expected to have kids and start a family which is why the question has problems – Joe W May 31 '18 at 17:17
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    @SSimon I think it would be better to focus on a single country if you're interested in the legal aspect (since there are many different answers), or you could ask about how to respond to the question, ignoring the legal aspect, and that would be more applicable to any country. – MJeffryes Jun 1 '18 at 10:52
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    @SSimon Essentially, yes. The Stack Exchange system works best for questions which are quite tightly focused. Legal questions really do have to be confined to a single location, since the answers are so specific to jurisdiction. Aside from this, a legal question is less relevant to the scope of this site. I think your question would provoke the most interesting and useful answers if it focused on how to handle getting such questions in an interview (that's just my personal opinion, and I don't have reopen vote privileges). – MJeffryes Jun 1 '18 at 14:38
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    I would also keep a careful and immediate note of any possibly illegal questions as soon as you leave the interview. – Anush Jun 11 '18 at 14:28

I have thought a lot about this topic. I am a married woman with a kid who had attended the big professional conference while 7 1/2 months pregnant. Most of my interviewers knew this information about me, so was often asked these questions on the job market. [1] I also mistakenly revealed the information a couple of times because I wanted to know about workplace culture. In the end, I got 0% of the jobs where the department knew I had a kid and 100% where they didn't. (Not statistically significant because of low sample size, but still...) Ever since that experience, I have paid special attention to articles on this topic.

I would abide by a few principles:

1) Provide as little information as possible. Anything you reveal may be held against you. If at all possible, provide a deflective, non-answer answer (including a joke). Frankly, any member of the search committee who is aware of the laws/cares about the discrimination will probably be grateful to you for avoiding this complication to the hiring process. Finally, even if you have a "good answer" like "my spouse would be happy to move," the committee may still decide not to believe you and penalize you for a two-body problem.[2]

2) Be collegial. A great deal of weight is placed on collegiality once you have made it to the stage of a flyout. This is why you should not just say "That's illegal." or respond in a way that might be confrontational (especially if you are a woman or person of color). In my case, I found that people who asked these illegal questions were using them as a lead in to sell you on aspects of the university such as great child care, fun couples activities in town, etc. When the asker (possibly incorrectly) thinks they are helping you, they take umbrage at a confrontational response.

3) If the information is already out there, give them the answer they want to hear. First, assume anything that they can Google is "out there." This includes wedding announcements, gift registries for babies, etc. After you account for the information that is part of the "public record", I think you are under no obligation to be actually honest about details. You should spin your situation to your heart's desire. They should not be using this information, so it should not matter, right?

4) Pivot back to job-relevant topics as fast as possible. Any time you spend discussing personal matters like this could probably be better spent positioning yourself as the most qualified applicant who would be the biggest asset to the department. So move back to these topics as fast as possible.

Some examples:

"Do you have children?" "Some days I feel I have 60 children! I can't tell if my undergrads are 19 are 9 most days. I often find that they don't listen well to directions... [here is one way I have handled that in my teaching]"

"How is your new baby sleeping through the night?" is "Great! They are such a good sleeper and I am back to full-time productive research!" (HA!)

"Are you married? What would your spouse do if you moved here? The university career services office is happy to help with spousal relocation." "It is great that the university is able to offer that type of support for new faculty. Are the students in the department also able to take advantage of career services? What are the placement rates like for new graduates from the department?"

[1] It was clearly something that the committees discussed about me. I had a prep call with a faculty member in advance of my first flyout. The conversation started with the person asking me what my daughter was going to be for Halloween. I had never met her and she did totally different work so did not attend the professional conference where I had been pregnant.

[2] Important study related to this topic (paywalled): journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122417739294 This finds that hiring committees often use information about marital status to make problematic assumptions about female candidates and illegally use that info in their decision making. The examples (the researcher was allowed to sit in on real hiring meetings at an R1 university) were incredibly egregious, including not offering the job to a top candidate because, even though she insisted her husband was happy to move, they didn't believe her.

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    I think this is the most balanced and informative answer. – Dan Romik Jun 4 '18 at 18:45
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    Very sadly, the right answer is sometimes just to lie. This is a great answer. It's not so long ago, in fact it is still true today in some places, that women remove their engagement ring when interviewing for jobs for fear of the employer deciding they must be about to have children. – Anush Jun 11 '18 at 14:22

Other answers have addressed the legality issue, but there’s still the question of

How should I respond to these questions as an early stage career academic?

I’ll throw out one suggestion that, while obvious, doesn’t seem to have been offered by anyone, which is to answer the question honestly. Depending on what the honest answer is, this may well be the optimal way to handle the situation. For example:

“How would your spouse react if you received an offer from us?”

“[He/she] would be delighted, like me! We are both excited about the possibility of moving to [name of city].”

And to be clear, I’m not making light of the fact that questions of this sort are highly problematic and something an interviewer shouldn’t ask, that creates an opportunity for abuse/discrimination, and that could land them in legal hot water. Ideally we would have the luxury of being able to stand up and resist any unethical behavior we encounter. But in an interview setting, if answering the question honestly actually would not be detrimental to your application, this may not be the best time or place to start fighting these sorts of injustices. The world will not necessarily become a better place if you make a martyr of yourself and sacrifice a good professional opportunity to teach someone a lesson about employment law.

Anyway, offering a straightforward answer may or may not be the best strategy in any given situation, but it’s certainly one option that’s worth considering.

Good luck with your interviews!

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    While this approach might be best of you personally, it still contributes to making it harder for people who might be discriminated against. – Jessica B Jun 4 '18 at 6:21
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    @JessicaB indeed. And OP not getting a job would contribute to making it harder for OP and his/her family to feed themselves. It would also contribute to making it harder for the students who would have been taught by OP if OP has gotten the job to get a high quality education (hence my assertion that “The world will not necessarily become a better place if you make a martyr of yourself”). Are you sure the concern you pointed out is more compelling than these opposing ones? I certainly don’t feel it’s my place to tell OP which one outweighs the other, even if I thought I knew, which I don’t. – Dan Romik Jun 4 '18 at 6:31
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    So you're saying "have principles, but do not stick to them". – user9646 Jun 4 '18 at 18:18
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    @NajibIdrissi no, I’m saying “have principles, but recognize that the world is a complicated place, and decide for yourself what is the right time and place to defend those principles and at what cost, instead of blindly following the advice of a bunch of (mostly) anonymous social justice warriors who will not have to live with the consequences of your decision.” – Dan Romik Jun 4 '18 at 18:23
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    This isn't the only good answer, but it's an option that needs to be pointed out. The blog cited above danced around advising it directly, but clearly didn't rule it out. The job hunt is an absurdly competitive and lopsided power situation. You need to use every question to your favor. Spouses may be the #1 excuse for turning down an offer and that's probably all they cared about. – A Simple Algorithm Jun 5 '18 at 4:56

Since you mentioned that you're also interested in Australia: strictly speaking, it isn't necessarily illegal to ask such questions here, but in general it's highly inadvisable. Discriminating on the basis of marital status is illegal, so why ask for information which you cannot legally use in the recruitment process?

Ask A Manager has some good advice on how to respond in this situation:

So how do you handle it if an interviewer asks you one of these questions? Educating the interviewer on employment law probably isn’t going to endear you to them. Instead, figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead. If you think an interviewer is concerned that you’ll leave the job when your husband gets transferred, speak directly to that: “I can commit to the job for at least several years.” If you think they’re concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance: “There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed and get the job done.”

In this case, that might translate to something like "I don't have any restrictions that would prevent me from moving for this job."

There may be legitimate reasons to ask about family status later in the process - e.g. an enlightened university may have programs to help with the impact of relocation on spouses and family. But that should be left until after the decision is made on who to hire.

Edit to add:

Personally, I think there's a strong argument that applicants should have the right to lie when asked questions with no legitimate purpose in the hiring process. At least one country legally recognises this principle: in Germany, if the employer does ask an inadmissible question in a job interview, the applicant is legally permitted to lie (Recht zur Lüge) and the employer cannot use this lie as grounds for a claim against them.

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    This is a great answer. After quickly answering in this manner, I would try to steer the interview back to the relevant research- or teaching-related topics at hand. – Dawn Jun 4 '18 at 2:20
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    I think this misses the point of the employment laws. You must be considered equally even if there are factors the employer might not like. By implying you are not pregnant, it still provides information that can be used against someone who is. – Jessica B Jun 4 '18 at 6:18
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    @JessicaB if you disagree with Geoffrey’s advice of deflecting the question while providing reassuring information to the interviewer, what would you advise OP to do instead? It sounds like you would recommend to OP to simply refuse to answer the question out of solidarity with all those pregnant (or otherwise at risk of discrimination) job candidates out there. Why not state that explicitly if that’s the case? If you truly believe OP has a moral duty to act against their (and their family’s, and future students’) own interests, please tell us. – Dan Romik Jun 4 '18 at 6:45
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    @JessicaB I believe this answer implies that you should provide the same answer regardless of whether or not you are pregnant. The idea, I believe, is to give a non-answer answer. It sounds like you have answered but actually reveals nothing. – Dawn Jun 4 '18 at 7:23
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    @Dawn Giving the answers here if you know you are pregnant is lying. – Jessica B Jun 4 '18 at 11:10

I could be wrong, but I don't believe any question is illegal to ask at an interview (at least in the US and UK), rather it is illegal to discriminate based on certain characteristics. If you ask a question about a protected characteristic, then in the case of a discrimination law suit, the university will be forced to prove that that information was not used. Hence most employers say don't ask about anything that is not relevant. What your family thinks about your job appointment is not relevant to the hiring process and protected characteristics like marital status, plans for children, sexual orientation, and age may be revealed during such questions.

The problem in academia is that we often mix our professional and social lives. Someone on the search main drive you around the neighborhood (e.g., on the way to dinner) and mention schools and nurseries. This is generally a no-no, but the search committee is trying to sell the school and determine if you would be a good colleague.

So to answer your question about how to respond, make sure you demonstrate you will be a good colleague, but be careful about revealing sensitive information (e.g., strong religious and political beliefs, maternity/paternity leave plans, etc). You should assume that potential colleagues are asking in good faith (e.g., if you are planning on having kids you probably want to know about the university nursery or if you are Jewish you may want to know about local temples). I would not suggest reacting to a sensitive question with anything like "you cannot ask me that", as no one wants to work with someone like that.

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    The question would be bad in any area where martial status is protected item of information (which is becoming more common) since any answer will reveal the that information to the employer. Also with how easy it is to assume that a young married couple will have kids it leads to other issues as well. – Joe W May 31 '18 at 17:16
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    In some countries it is definitely illegal to even ask some questions in a job interview. See e.g. this answer of mine about France: you can not ask anything that is not related to the job, and not just some questions on a list of "protected information". And I vehemently disagree with the notion that you should not stand up for your rights. There is a very bad tendency in academia for people to believe that academia is somehow special, that we should be lucky to have a job at all and accept anything. – user9646 May 31 '18 at 17:56
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    This finds that hiring committees often use information about marital status to make problematic assumptions about female candidates and illegally use that info in their decision making. It is not the asking that is illegal, it is the use of the info ( in the US). It would certainly be against university policies to ask, and that is what was meant on the podcast, I believe. – Dawn Jun 1 '18 at 0:19
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    In the UK the question is not sensu stricto illegal, but it is likely to be strong evidence that the recruitment process was bias, which is illegal. It is almost certainly against the universities HR rules. When people say "you cannot ask that" they are not quite right. Clearly the question can be asked, because someone asked it! But it does open up the university to a discrimination claim. I would at the least inform the HR department at the Uni that the question was asked. – Ian Sudbery Jun 1 '18 at 9:19
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    Austria: definitely forbidden to even ask these kinds of questions, you are not allowed to ask about family plans, kids, pregnancies,... – Noldig Jun 1 '18 at 11:12

According to the UK .Gov website, in the UK they must not even ask whether you have a husband.

There are many advise articles available with suggestions for how to deal with such questions if they do arise. Most of these are along the lines of

I don't see that that is relevant to my ability to do this job.

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    It's possibly worth saying that the process of an academic interview in the UK is very very different to that in the US. There is a clear distinction between the formal events and any informal activities. – Jessica B Jun 2 '18 at 8:46
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    I think that a man could possibly answer this way without repercussions (maybe), but a woman who answered this way would be dinged and it would negatively impact her likelihood of getting the job. The woman faces a double-bind which includes an emphasis on collegiality... – Dawn Jun 4 '18 at 7:30
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    Right, but that’s why they call it discrimination not logic. – Dawn Jun 4 '18 at 11:17
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    @Dawn I think a woman could also possibly answer this way without repercussions (maybe). The occurrence between those maybes is probably different though. – sgf Jun 4 '18 at 14:42
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    @sgf Fair enough! I am trying to imply that women tend to be dinged more for “collegiality infractions.” – Dawn Jun 4 '18 at 14:53

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