I am an undergraduate in the U.S., and my university is currently interviewing for an open faculty position. The department arranges lunches with the job candidates and current undergraduate students, where we can ask the candidate questions and get to know them. Students fill out an evaluation of the candidate following the lunch (which is in theory taken into consideration for the hiring decision). However, the atmosphere of this meeting itself is quite informal and conversational.

Two of the candidates are currently expecting a baby. The male candidate said on their own that he was expecting a baby. One fellow undergraduate specifically asked the female candidate (in front of 20 other undergrads) if she would be able to balance a new baby and the job at the same time. However, she did not bring this up with the male candidate, who is also expecting a baby. We met with the male candidate first.

As a fellow undergraduate, how could I respectfully address this?

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    how could I respectfully address this? — This question is unclear. What is it, specifcally, that you are seeking to address, and with whom?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 20:53
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    @MadJack As confirmed by many of the responses, this behavior was clearly inappropriate. However, I am unsure whether it needs to be addressed, and if so, with whom (i.e., the department chair, the student, etc?)
    – KTK
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 15:29
  • Small plug, I'm trying to create a stack exchange in area51 on this topic (currently titled: race & politics dialogue, that's a work in progress since discussions of sexism are obviously relevant) area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/106355/…
    – user18072
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 8:11
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    The behavior was discriminatory rather than sexist. They asked the female candidate not because she was a woman per se, but because it's (much) more common for women to take extended maternity leave than men. Hence, asking the female candidate but not the male one was discriminatory.
    – smci
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 9:26
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    What does 'address' mean? You want to privately give feedback to the interviewer? complain about them to someone else? suggest the dept/university should promulgate more awareness in unconscious bias leading to such questions? give guidance about how to ask about candidates intending to take leave or career breaks? incorporate that into (university?/dept?) interview training? some or all of the above? Your question is unclear, please edit it.
    – smci
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 9:33

8 Answers 8


There are two issues at play here depending on if you are formally part of the hiring process.

If you are formally part of the hiring processing asking questions about the family life of a job candidate, man or woman, is treading on thin ice. Even if the information is not meant to be discriminatory (e.g., as a search chair you might want to be helpful and look into spaces in the university nursery), it is just a topic you do not bring up. As a formal part of the search committee, it is reasonable to mention to the person who asked the question that family life is a topic to avoid. You may also want to mention it to the search chair so they can be prepared for any claims of discrimination.

If you are not formally part of the hiring process (e.g., potential faculty tend to like to meet students), the issue is difficult. It is perfectly reasonable, and non-sexist, for a female student to ask a female applicant about work life balance. It is a topic that a female student might have questions and concerns about for themselves going forward. Of course it could be a sexist remark to intentionally sabotage the candidate. Note that any combination of student and applicant sex could be non sexist (a male student may want to understand how their potential wife might would handle the work-life balance and a female student might want to know about how a husband would handle it). Given that, I would not raise it with the student that the question was sexist. Rather, I would point out that while the point of meeting with the candidates is to give undergraduate students exposure, that the students should be welcoming to the applicants and try and put their best foot forward. Asking about touchy subjects is not in the best interest of the department.

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    +1, but I have one little addition: It is easy for a student, or even a faculty member, to unwittingly find themselves in the role of an extra at an "extended interview" and not being told about it until afterwards (if at all). I have asked speakers at talks some tricky questions and only later realized that these were job talks; I am wondering whether they ended up regarding me as someone's pawn / attack dog... So, do point the problem out to the student, but do not presume without good reasons that the student was being sexist or deliberately attacking the interviewee. Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 23:24
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    "is treading on thin ice" - I'm pretty sure that in certain locations it's outright illegal, actually.
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 0:12
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    @NateEldredge - "If you are formally part of the hiring processing" is the paragraph heading. IANAL, but I don't think someone not being employee would matter in a lawsuit if it's a part of a formal process.
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 1:14
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    Why is it reasonable "for a female student" to ask that, but not for a male student?
    – Josef
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 18:43
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    @Josef did you read the whole answer. I go on to say a male student may want to know how their wife would handle it.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 19:07

Assuming that the undergraduate falls within the typical range of undergraduates in the United States (i.e. 18 to 25) they may not have enough interviewing experience to know what is and is not an acceptable question. In the United States it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender and gendered questions are to be avoided as a result. This should be pointed out to the undergraduate in a manner that assumes good faith since they might simply not know any better. It may be helpful to provide undergraduates with examples of good - gender neutral, not overly personal or invasive, on-topic - examples of questions before the interview.

Also, it should be noted that even in professional environments, people that are new at interviewing make a lot of mistakes in terms of questions about legally protected categories. You may also want to recommend some sort of quick training session to people that are involved in searches. These sessions do not necessarily need to be that long, and even people that have been interviewing for years can always benefit from a refresher given by HR on what may and may not be legal or sensitive areas.

The best way to address it would be at the department level with undergraduates getting some sort of training before they are part of an interview panel. Calling out one person is a reactive response, while providing training to an entire group is a proactive response. In the long term proactive responses generally avoid problems all together were as they never quite go away with reactive responses.


I would stay away from the sexism angle, since the evidence we have for sexism here seems pretty tenuous to me -- the student whose behavior offended you could plausibly argue that she forgot to ask the male candidate the same question or that the question occurred to her only after the first interview, and quite likely there were many other questions on different topics that she asked one candidate and not the other, and that's hardly proof of any malice or discriminatory beliefs.

Despite this, I think the question your fellow student asked was inadvisable regardless of the candidate's gender. Simply, having children is such a common and universal part of human experience that it would be absurd for a faculty position to carry the premise that only people without young children are qualified for the job. If I were interviewing for a position like that, I would be seriously alarmed about any hint gathered during my interviewing experience that my job will be so difficult that I cannot do it effectively and be a parent (or have other extracurricular activities I like to spend a comparable amount of time on) at the same time.

As for what you should do, if you feel comfortable discussing it with the other student in a friendly and casual way, I see nothing wrong with mentioning the concern I outlined above, but try not to be patronizing -- the goal should be to help her understand the issue rather than to reprimand her for her behavior. And as I said, do not mention sexism unless there is much more blatant evidence that that was a factor.

Another option would be to inform your department chair or other faculty member overseeing the interviewing process about your concern that some of the undergrads participating in the interview are asking questions that have the potential to sabotage the success of the recruitment. But honestly, I doubt they will be surprised to hear this rather obvious fact, and I don't think they would necessarily view it as a major concern. The candidate probably realizes that undergrads are less experienced and professional in their attitudes and that this is likely to translate to them saying some awkward or embarrassing things during the interview, and will probably just shrug it off. (In fact, believe it or not, much older senior faculty members also sometimes say foolish things in interviews. And yes, that includes me -- saying stupid things is just a part of being human, and is likely to happen occasionally however professional one makes an effort to be.)

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    "Simply, having children is such a common and universal part of human experience" -- beautiful. Such a shame to have this lovely sentence marred by the "tenuous" paragraph. Consider this analogy: "But Officer, I didn't see the 'No U Turn' sign." Judges aren't looking for malice or discriminatory beliefs. They judge behavior, actions and effects. Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 2:53
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    @aparente001 if you see clear sexism here, feel free to call it out. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone etc. Since I cannot claim to be without sin (of having asked something foolish of a job candidate, or having said something sexist ever in my life for that matter) I don't see fit to make such a judgment call here. Anyway, glad you liked a part of my answer.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 3:02
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    I think our difficulty lies in sexism meaning two different things. I think you are focusing on the intent, and I'm focusing on the observable, effective discrimination that occurred. I've had so much experience filing civil rights complaints on behalf of my son (on the basis of disability discrimination), and getting OCR's detailed analysis back of my allegations, that I've learned to set aside people's intentions, and focus on their actions. Student asked baby care question of the woman but not of the man -- that's an observable, discriminatory action. Why the student asked ... Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 4:13
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    @aparente001 ok, I see where you're coming from. Well, if having children is not accepted for a woman in academia then it should be accepted, which is precisely why I said questions about how to handle having children and a faculty position are inappropriate - both of a man and of a woman. Again, I personally prefer not to focus on the sexism aspect in this particular instance. But that's just my humble opinion, and I'll freely admit that other opinions are completely legitimate and may be equally or more valid.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 4:26
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    @KTK here's a different suggestion about what moral we can learn from this story, again without using simplistic (IMO) labels such as sexism: regrettably, it appears that it is simply a bad idea to involve undergraduates in a process as fraught with sensitive legal and psychological issues as a faculty job recruitment. One way or another, some inexperienced or immature student is going to say something foolish/racist/sexist/rude/whatever that will make the candidate uncomfortable. Again, focusing on sexism here is a mistake IMO, the issue as I see it is much broader and more general than that.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 20:55

While the faculty interviews I have been on have seen a good mix of questions from invited undergraduates to my job talks, this won't be the first time an undergraduate asks an inappropriate question during a faculty interview, and it won't be the last.

If you want to go on record with your disapproval, then bring it up with the search committee chair.

Hopefully, you got something else out of the visit with the candidates, so while you are giving your feedback to the chair about the candidates, you could also bring up your disapproval with your peer's comment. It is not your job to suggest improvements to the getting-undergraduates-involved-in-faculty-hiring process, so let the search chair worry about that.

  • 1
    Good answer. I would soften disapproval to concern, though. I am assuming the student who asked the out-of-line question didn't know it was out-of-line, and the search committee does not include undergraduates for the purposes of sneaking in out-of-line questions. Approaching it from the standpoint of “I saw this; it made me uncomfortable; I don't know if that's what you want from this process” seems like the right tone to take. Especially since involving students is a thoughtful nod to their importance in the university. I would think they would be open to that kind of feedback. Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 12:06

The question has some merit, but as your question alludes it should work both ways. Maybe not worded exactly right but it is a valid question to see if someone has enough time to put into a challenging job given that they have X going on in their life.

I am a manager in the US and we are coached away from saying certain things and I work at such a large (ultra-PC) company that we are told not even to say very basic words (like pregnant/pregnancy). So yes the question shouldn't have been asked like that but doesn't invalidate the need for a good response.

Where I am going with this is a manager hiring someone to do something that is a challenging position with little/no experience should try to figure out what the mentality of the person is - Where do they put their work on their lifestyle scale?

And I can go back to the biggest fail of my life was a similar interview. I was right out of college and on my 4th interview at a huge finance company for a job people dream about. Not knowing that the 4th interview (with several managers) meant I was about to be hired, I really didn't give the questions much thought. The joys of being a clueless (interview-wise) 22 year-old. The hiring manager knew I had two very young kids so there was a stress on the number of hours I might be working and was told 70-80 could be normal. They beat this into the ground... Well an hour into this I slipped up and said something to the effect, "Do you have positions that require the same skill but less work."

Just so there isn't a cliffhanger... didn't get the job. Should I have? No. I would have hated working those hours with two little ones. And it might have been physically impossible. It is a funny story to tell about how I sabotaged myself for a job that would pay 6 figures by year 5. But no regrets.

So the answer to your question of what you should do?

  • Don't let people be sexist. In this situation I would have said something to the person that said it. Put him on the spot but in private.

  • Understand that even though phrased wrong the idea behind the question is very valid for a male or female. If I hear that a guy is on the national rugby team and does that in his spare time, I may question his ability to travel or work long hours. It doesn't make the question sexist. A person going into an interview should know what to say or they should be honest.

  • You can certainly help a person out if a fellow interviewer asks something weird or inappropriate. Nothing wrong with a leading question to help.

  • You can certainly help a person out if a fellow interviewer asks something weird or inappropriate... How specifically would you suggest doing this?
    – KTK
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 19:25
  • @KTK something like I am sure it is not an issue our department is great about family leave. Professor Jones just had a baby and the chair worked with her to come up with a schedule that worked for her.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 19:35
  • @StrongBad This seems like a very good suggestion. What alternatives might exist given that I know nothing of the department's leave policies and none of the faculty had children recently?
    – KTK
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 23:06
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    Pregnancy is in the same category as rugby when it comes to concerns of hiring males or females? Really?
    – user18072
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 15:58
  • @djechlin - no. I am saying these are two things that could take a lot of someone's time. It could be train collecting or whatever. Now pregnancy is important and should be protected. But after that men and women are on equal bearings right? What I am getting at is - it is OK to ask a candidate if they are willing to put the hours and work into their work. It doesn't matter the subject.
    – blankip
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 19:43

This fellow undergraduate asked a question that would in any normal job interview be illegal to ask. And nobody would ask the question, because if that candidate wasn't hired they would now be able to sue the interviewing company and win.

Since that fellow undergraduate has probably no idea about employment law, and has probably no idea how sexist their question is, you should perfectly respectfully advice him or her that if they were involved in a job interview and asked that question they would put their company's HR into an impossible situation and would get a major telling off after the candidate has left, and if they were an HR employee and asked that question they could lose their job for incompetence.


We are not allowed to note the fact that a mother will probably require more time off due to family commitments than a father. In some jurisdictions it is even illegal to mention the possibility. All you have to do is remind them of this.

In fact, even MENTIONING this particular 'elephant in the room' will lay you open to criticism. Just keep your mouth shut. Let your collegues dig their own graves.

  • You realize your first sentence is one of the reasons why these policies are in place. You are judging a woman because she is a woman and not based on what the individual might be able to contribute.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 14:23
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    Absolutely. I am recognising that a mother may well act like a mother. I am also recognising that it is currently forbidden to recognise this.
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 14:27
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    "act like a mother" I can't help but feel there is some inherent bias and dare I say judgment inherent in this choice of words.
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 10:32
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    Of course you can dare to say that! There's no political correctness requirement in any discussion with me!
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 12:14

There is nothing for you to do.


  1. your university does not care about the law, ethics, professional standards, and human decency; or

  2. your university is going to shred the student evaluations so they can have absolutely no impact on hiring decisions (showing the esteem the university places on student opinion).

Either way, there is nothing for you to do (except maybe transfer to a better university).

If your university esteemed student opinion; and cared about the law, ethics, professional standards, and human decency - then they would have trained the student panel and everyone on the panel would already know about this. There would be nothing for you to do.

If your university shreds student evaluations (which I suspect they do), then they might be in technical compliance with the law. However, there is no way for the candidate to know that. The effect may be to discourage certain applicants from applying.

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    This seems like an awfully presumptive answer. How do you know there is not a third case, like an honest mistake? Why not infer that the department goes to the trouble of bringing students to lunch because it wants their input, and that students may not be aware of the law / ethics / professional standards involved therein? Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 12:33
  • @MatthewLeingang it is indeed possible that the department wants their input and that the students are not aware of the law. whose fault is that? who could have done something about that but chose not to?
    – emory
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 13:19
  • There is also the case that the student evaluation forms have been vetted by HR/legal and are designed to comply with the law.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 14:10
  • @StrongBad did the students use the prohibited information to make their recommendations? did the department use the student's recommendations to make a hiring decision? In that case, the department used prohibited information to make a hiring decision. HR/legal can not sanitize that.
    – emory
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 14:34

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