5 things not to say to a woman at work

A primer for the uninitiated

1. “You’re the smartest woman I know”

This is not a compliment. Rather, it’s telling a woman that she’s at the top end of the bottom half. It’s akin to patting her on the head and saying, “you’re not quite as smart as the men I know but, hey, you’re doing alright for a woman.”

Try “you’re one of the smartest people I know” instead. Honestly, you don’t need to highlight her X chromosomes every time you talk to her.

2. “Can *I* have a cron job”?

Look, I’m a female CS grad and have heard every sexist joke in the book, but there’s no need for it in the workplace. Don’t carve tired old jokes from unfunny puns, don’t make tongue-in-cheek references to affirmative action and don’t ask her if it’s her time of the month.

You can lampoon her preference for Star Trek over Star Wars or that she believed that story from The Onion that one time, or even that she has a thing for Tyrion, but don’t use her gender as the butt of your jokes.

Yes, I said butt. What?

3. “You don’t look like an engineer/scientist/person-who-does-clever-things”

This is often intended as a compliment. It’s meant to say you’re too pretty or sociable or glamorous to be in a job traditionally occupied by geeks and fanboys — but this is insulting to women (not to mention the geeks and fanboys). A woman’s appearance does not limit her intelligence or penchant for intellectually challenging work. Don’t assume as such.

4. “Can you watch over the intern?”

Women by dint of their gender are often given this type of task particularly when they work in an all-male team. Women are traditionally seen as nurturers which in the workplace too often translates into therapist, mother and social secretary. It’s not a woman’s job by default to watch over the intern, nor to organise drinks next Thursday, nor to advise you on the minutiae of your life. If you need drinks organised, try doing it yourself or asking a male colleague instead.

5. “Relax”

“Calm down.” “Relax.” Two phrases sure to make a person’s blood boil. When you say these words, you’re signifying to the person that their concerns are not valid or rational. There’s a prevailing view that women are irrational compared with men. Clearly, this is a generalisation — one you reinforce every time you tell a woman to calm down. Instead, ask “what can I do to help?” Then, either help or don’t help, but don’t make a smartarse remark about it.