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I work as a Software Engineer in a large corporation, I'm regularly experiencing sexism from colleagues, as well as managers. It's a contributing factor to me actively seeking a new job. I really don't want to walk into another company and find the culture is just as bad, if not worse. I'm also not naive enough to assume this is the only company where sexism is laughed off. There's a lot of opportunities around, so luckily I feel able to reject any company that I get a vague whiff of discrimination from.

How can I gauge this at the interview stage? I have a telephone interview coming up tomorrow, as well as an on-site interview next week. I've thought about asking (assuming a technical manager is interviewing) whether anyone has reported sexism to them, what their response was etc, but company policy may mean they can't tell me. Plus, my workplace wins awards for equality, so their response could tell me nothing. Equally, I don't want to give prospective employers the impression I will be disruptive with feminist views. Is it a bad idea to ask prospective employers how they deal with gender equality in the workplace?

Edit: I think this is different from What are specific ways to learn meaningful information about company culture in interviews? because of my second question - which addresses whether a recruiter would be dissuaded from an appliant asking about their equality culture.

Edit 2: The above question asks for methods outside of asking in an interview, I am asking specifically about the interview process

  • I am confused with three ? – paparazzo Jan 31 '18 at 20:13
  • I've edited out your side note because that's a completely different topic. You should post it as a separate question if you want answers on how that might be perceived.. – Lilienthal Jan 31 '18 at 21:20
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    This question is (imo incorrectly) heading for closure so I won't post an answer but since you're on the clock I feel I should tell you to avoid even using the word sexism when asking about this, let alone asking about something as sensitive as internal sexism allegations. If you ask about the company's attitude/position/culture on this you do it by asking about their gender equality programs, the gender (im)balance and how the company is working on it and you read between the lines. The hard-ball tactics you're considering would paint you in a bad light. – Lilienthal Jan 31 '18 at 21:26
  • The question itself is not vague, but your terminology is. You would need to document what you mean by "... experiencing sexism ...", "... reported sexism ..." etc. by giving specific examples. HR (and everyone else) can't work with cries of "sexism!". They can work with "manager indicated I was not promoted because I am female" or "coworker loudly proclaims that women can't do the job right". – shoover Jan 31 '18 at 23:15
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    @Louise I think that the marked dupes are indeed covering what you ask for, as they are actually during the interview process. The first line of that dupe says: "What are specific ways to learn about a company's culture during the interview " ... did you actually mean to say something else (perhaps I didn't get it) – DarkCygnus Feb 1 '18 at 19:15
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I can't see where you'd get a positive response in the majority of cases. They're concerned about your ability to job and as one whose interviewed hundreds, asking a question such as yours will likely make them think, "troublemaker". I realize that's not an accurate portrayal, but unless you're a superstar in what they're hiring for, you would likely be seen as someone who might "stir the pot".

Let me be clear. I'm not saying that a company should tolerate sexism even a little bit. But an interview is really not the place to ask that kind of question. You'd be better off to look on websites like Glassdoor or try to find someone who used to work there, possibly through LinkedIn.

Let me elaborate on my reasons why it would be bad. When I'm hiring, I want someone who will just do their job and not make waves. You have the strong potential to be a wavemaker. As such, if someone was equally qualified, I'd choose them over someone who asked that question. It's a lower risk.

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    You might also look for public statements and social media posts in response to news and social movements. Not all companies will have these, but it would be a helpful indicator. – David K Jan 31 '18 at 20:11
  • @AllTheKingsHorses The problem is most of those questions will put companies on the defensive as it could be misconstrued as accusing them. That's not a thing you really want to do in an interview. There are better places to find out instead, an interview is supposed to show each person (Interviewer and interviewee) in the best light – Draken Feb 1 '18 at 12:45
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    @AllTheKingsHorses No, because as Draken said, it will be taken as an accusation. Sexism is not something you "work against" per se, it's something you don't tolerate. The simple answer would be, "we don't hire sexists or tolerate it." They will put themselves in the best light so the question is completely useless. It's like asking if it's a good place to work or if the company promotes from within. Are they really going to say, "no, we see if the boss has any friends who need work."? That's why I say talk to former employees. That's how you get honest answers. – Chris E Feb 1 '18 at 16:54
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Lots of things to consider here. First, use your professional network of fellow women in engineering and ask them how well their company/boss treats them before you apply anywhere. This should get you a list of better companies to work for. If you don't have such a network, now is the time to develop one. Conferences and user groups are a good place to meet other women in Technology. The SQL PASS organization, for instance, has a Women in Technology group that you can become active with. You can connect with the men in your network too, but honestly if the harassment didn't affect them, they may not have noticed it.

While I might not ask directly during the interview, you can look for clues. First how are any other women especially receptionists, secretaries, HR personnel treated by the men you see them come into contact with? If these people are not treated professionally, women engineers likely will not be treated well either. If there are no other women around, that is usually a bad sign too.

If you can, get a tour of the office space and look at how people interact with each other and what the spaces look like. Does it seem like a place with a lot of juvenile joking going on? Then pass. Unless you enjoy toilet humor. Are there obnoxious pictures or perhaps a copy of the screed from that Google engineer on women posted on the walls or bulletin boards? Do people make jokes about you being a EEO or Affirmative Action hire? Is the tone of voice they use when talking to you dismissive? Is there anyone who gives you a creepy vibe when you walk by or are introduced? Pay special attention to this as it only takes one creep to ruin a perfectly good workplace.

Check out how people look at you when you are there. See if anyone mistakes you for the secretary or unabashedly stares at your boobs. As you walk around the spaces in a tour, see how other people (male and female) are treated as well. Is there a difference in how women are spoken to compared to the men. If you get complimented is it for something you have accomplished or for your looks?

Do they make a big deal out of being a merit-based organization? This is sometimes a code phrase for "only white men are promoted here" in my experience. They manipulate this by making sure the people they want to hire/promote get the choice tasks and everyone else does not, so they look like the "right" folks accomplished more at the end of the year in the "Objective" measures. There are some good places that claim this too, but check out the organizational structure. If all the people of color and women are in the lower ranks and none of them have been promoted to a management position, your career will be dead at that place. And you will very likely get sexually harassed.

Does the interview seem too simple for the skill level of the position? This is often a sign that they are only interested because you are female (especially if you are young and attractive). Does the interviewer seem dismissive of you and your skills?

Do they bring up how women do in their workplace? Having a company culture that celebrates diversity and is willing to talk about it up front is a starting place. Not a deal breaker if they don't bring it up though. Conversely, if they are all excited about possibly hiring their first babe, you may want to pass. Places that haven't had to worry about harassment before often don't deal with it well. If they refer to you as a girl, pass. You are an adult woman not a girl. They rarely take you seriously if you are a girl to them.

Check out the Internet for stories about the company.

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    I got called a "good girl" for finishing a project I was managing recently - thank you for reminding me it's just not ok! – fey Jan 31 '18 at 21:13
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    Some useful points, but I am not sure what the thrashing against caucasian males has to do with the question. – NoBackingDown Feb 1 '18 at 19:11
  • @NoBackingDown, because these are the one of the types of workplaces where she will be likely to get sexually harassed. It is a clue to a workplace she will want to avoid. I would never even consider taking a job at a place that touts being a meritocracy because I have seen first-hand what that really means. And note I did not say all white males or even all meritocracies, only those where it is clear there is a pattern of no one except white males getting ahead. – HLGEM Feb 2 '18 at 14:38
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I think its going to be difficult to impossible to determine that in advance. Even visiting and touring the workplace, you'll likely see people on their best behavior.

Your best chance to get a feeling for this might be to ask about their HR policies. Questions like:

  1. How big is your organization? (If you're in the US, companies under a certain size are exempt from certain anti-discrimination laws.)
  2. Do you have a dedicated HR department? (Or would any problems be dealt with by management?)
  3. Before hiring, can I see a copy of your employee handbook? (Do they even have one? Do they have specific written policies about harassment? Do they define a grievance process?)

If you have a non-technical interview with someone in personnel, these should probably be asked there instead of during your technical interview.

Unfortunately, even finding a company with good policies doesn't guarantee anything about your manager or your coworkers.

Check the "Glass Door" review site, but since every review is written by a disgruntled employee, take it with a grain of salt.

If you can, see if you can find an opportunity to chat casually with other female engineers (if they have any!). Ask open-ended questions like, "how is it working here?" or "is it hard working here as a woman?" They may be able to read between the lines of your question and give an honest response.

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    She could also ask about company sponsored employee resource/networking groups. Typically the companies that take such things seriously encourage employees to support each other in advancing their careers and are happy to talk about those programs as an added benefit of working for the company. – ColleenV parted ways Jan 31 '18 at 20:29
  • "Do you have a dedicated HR department?" That's a two edged sword. Sometimes, management sees sexism as a operational problem to be tackled while HR sees it as a nuisance that is best handled by shutting up the complaining party. – pmf Feb 1 '18 at 8:19
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    Uber had an HR department. – HLGEM Feb 1 '18 at 16:39
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Rather than ask about a culture of sexism, I would suggest asking about diversity and inclusiveness initiatives, and specifically about whatever group you're interested in.

Companies that value diversity love to promote it, so you can search for examples on the company website. In your cover letter, you can talk about whatever groups you belong to that emphasize inclusiveness and why this is one of your values. In your interview(s), you can bring up your values and your research, and ask questions about them. You might be able to see if you can talk to someone who heads one of those groups, to learn more.

I would avoid using the phrase "sexist culture" in an interview. It sounds accusatory and would probably put people the defensive.

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I work with and interview woman all the time in the software business. I care about how well they do their job not their gender. I would be a little thrown off if they asked me about sexism in the workplace. Not necessarily because its a bad question but because some people would take offense to it.

"Who's this person questioning the culture of our workplace when we take pride in it and he/she does not even know us?"

Having said that, You can ask whatever you please in a interview if you feel strongly about it or if you have had troubles in the past. But don't expect a favorable response as some might take it the wrong way.

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    -1 for completely disregarding unconscious bias and playing the "we're a meritocracy" card. – shellco Jan 31 '18 at 23:46
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    "Unconscious bias"... Thats laughable. I care much less about what people think in their heads compared to how they act. People Can think whatever they choose, as long as they don't act on it. – pm1391 Jan 31 '18 at 23:58
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Rather than asking directly, consider a few alternative approaches that will allow you to get the information you want to know, without letting them in on your concerns:

  1. In the interview, ask open-ended questions about company culture. Then look for clues in the responses. For example, if you ask "what traits do you think are most important to be successful in this job", and they say "you have to have a thick skin", it's possible that a lot of jerks may work there. If you ask "how do you promote your company culture?" and they don't appear to have given it much thought, this may be a bad sign. This may not always reveal sexism per se, but it could give you clues you need to make a good guess. Your goal here is to feel out any red flags of how they treat employees without letting them in on what your particular concerns are.
  2. If the interview is going well, many companies will either give a tour or introduce you to multiple team members. If the interview is going well and they don't do this, ask to meet the team and/or see the workplace. You may be able to get a feel for any issues with bias simply by observing first impressions of your potential team mates.
  3. Chris E's answer mentions searching the internet. This is good advice. You're not likely to find evidence that there is NO problem, but if there is a problem, you may find clues there. In addition to glassdoor reviews, news stories, company communication, and former employees on LinkedIn, Consider finding the people you interviewed with on social media. Jerks tend to reveal themselves on the internet and this may be helpful.

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