Interview Discrimination: What Employers Legally Can’t Ask Women

On Behalf of | Mar 22, 2019 | Discrimination |

A job interview can be a stressful experience for anyone, even at the best of times. Presenting yourself well, learning about the role, and asking the right questions can be demanding.

For women, it can be especially frustrating. In a study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that employers were twice as likely to hire a man over a woman. And women make up only 4.2% of CEOs and just 19.2% of board members at firms on the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Facing such a potentially tough landscape as a woman in the workplace, it’s important to be aware of what your rights are during the interview stage. So before your next application, read on for some useful insights and actionable advice that will help you navigate the choppy waters of your job interview.

How common is interview discrimination against women?

Since the Civil Rights Act was introduced in 1964, huge strides have been made by women in the workplace. Despite significant progress since then (especially in the past five years), women still experience significant discrimination. 42% of women in the US have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, and are twice as likely as men to report discrimination based on their gender while at work.

Unfortunately, this discrimination extends to the interview process as well. Even before joining a company, female interviewees can be subjected to unfair gender-based prejudices and even illegal questioning.

Women themselves can often be only too aware of this — finding themselves having to either lie or change their behavior or appearance in order to appear more favorable in a job interview.


The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was enacted to protect the rights of pregnant women in the workplace. With it came a number of stipulations for businesses, including the condition that employers must amend any tasks that a pregnant woman would have to carry out in the course of her day-to-day duties.

This applies regardless of the industry they work in, whether it’s office work or more physical work.

Unfortunately, some employers view this as a burden, and as such will take steps to identify during the interview process if a woman is pregnant, or plans to conceive in the near future. The PDA accounts for this, and consequently it is illegal for employers to ask a woman about pregnancy.

If you are asked this, refuse to answer. But beware: employers may get around this by phrasing it differently, for example: “do you have plans to start a family anytime soon?” or “are you taking birth control?”

Physical appearance

It is federal law that employers cannot choose one job applicant over another based on their physical appearance instead of their experience and qualifications. Unfortunately, women’s experiences of this happening to them are only too common.

In your interview, watch out for red flags such as your potential employer commenting on your appearance, no matter how minor it might seem. For example, be aware of questions such as “do you do your makeup like that everyday?”.

If you are asked anything about your appearance, firmly but politely state that you would prefer not to discuss it.


This is especially common, particularly as the global recession forces more and more older people to stay in work in order to make ends meet. Unfortunately, despite federal labor laws intended to prevent discrimination, women in particular find their age a point of contention during job interviews.

That said, it is not illegal to ask someone their age during a job interview.

However, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 does declare discrimination on this basis illegal for people over 40. There are also some state laws that protect younger workers from age discrimination too. However, this can make it tricky to know how to respond if asked.

As such, if you are asked about your age, redirect them by being forthright about your experience, skills, and qualifications.

Show them that you know what the role demands and that you are the perfect candidate for the role. Subtly but firmly make clear that your age is just a number, and that your skills and personality are what matters.

Relationship status

Federal and several state laws prohibit employers from querying the relationship status of a candidate. While discrimination based on marital status is not explicitly referred to, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that businesses cannot discriminate on the grounds of sex. Discrimination on the basis of marital status is often considered discrimination on the basis of sex in the eyes of the law.

Be wary of personal questions and refuse to discuss it if it comes up. If they contest this, refer to the law and simply state you are not comfortable talking about it. It is your right as a candidate to not discuss your marital status.

So what can women do?

It might feel impossible to combat discrimination during or after a job interview, but there are lots of things women can do to combat and prevent this.

Don’t give too much away

When you’re applying for a job, be careful not to reveal any personal information about yourself accidentally that is not related to the role itself.

This often happens before the interview during small talk, as it is easy to let slip private information when your guard is down. To avoid this, keep your written and verbal contact prior to the interview friendly but professional, and think before you speak.

Take legal advice

If you feel you have been a victim of interview discrimination, you should lodge a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They will look into your claim and determine whether a breach of US law has been made. If this is the case, they will begin legal proceedings.

If you feel you have been unfairly discriminated against during an interview, you should consider getting a free initial case review from a legal professional. They will consider your situation and advise how you can or should proceed. Speak to a local attorney and request a free initial case review to weigh your options.

Don’t take to social media

If you have had a negative experience during or after a job interview and felt as though you were treated unfairly in the process, it can be tempting to voice your indignation on social media.

However, this is not always wise. Naming and shaming a business or individual can often lead to legal proceedings against the complainant, and can interfere with any investigation into the discrimination against you.

If you do take to social media to vent your concerns, avoid anything that could possibly identify the employer. That includes specifics such as their name and address, but also general information such as their industry. Play it safe, and follow the steps above rather than taking to social media.

Beware of leading statements

It is illegal for employers to make statements that would draw a response from the candidate related to their family or marital status.

For example, if a potential employer said that they have to leave early once a week to take their children to sports practice, that could potentially encourage the candidate to elaborate on their family situation too.

We have made huge leaps for women in the workplace in the past few years. More and more women are succeeding in business and the number of females in senior roles is growing, albeit slowly.

Despite this, the hiring process for female candidates is still rife with discrimination. Do your research and know your rights as a potential employee, and discuss only that which you are legally obliged to.

If you feel you have been unfairly discriminated against, take the necessary recommended steps to ensure you are protected, as both a candidate and a woman.

For further information, this Houston immigration lawyer and Miami immigration lawyer may be reached at [email protected] or at 713-850-0066​ or 305-701-4624.