Career Advice, Watercooler

9 Things Men Should Never Say To Female Coworkers

Working in a café

On the surface, it may seem sexist to call out men for the things they say to their female coworkers. However, A 2015 Cosmopolitan survey found that as many as one in three women are sexually harassed at work—which can range from a single off-the-cuff comment to unwelcome sexual advances.

“All coworkers should think twice before saying things to others,” concedes Gayle Katz, author of How To Be Happy At Work: Speak Up, Stay Positive, And Change Your Life. “[But] male workers should definitely think before they speak to females.” 

Not sure what’s should make the no-no list? Here are nine sayings that should be off limits:

1. “How’s that report coming along, honey?”

Pet names are cute—when they come from your significant other. But, “coming from your male coworker or boss, those same names may humiliate you, as if you’re a pet rather than a valued employee,” says Katz. So stick to first and last names, she says.

[Related: A Victim, An HR Exec & A Lawyer: 3 Perspectives on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace]

2. “I have to support my family—that’s why I make more.”

The gender wage gap is a big deal to many a talented woman who earns less than her male counterpart with the same experience and know-how. So executive coach Nancy Halpern, of KNH Associates, warns men shouldn’t try to justify that gap with reasons such as supporting a family. “It’s factually untrue and no justification for why two people doing the same job should be paid differently,” she says.

[Related: 10 Jobs Where Women Earn Less, More and The Same]

3. “Relax!”

You may think your female coworker is overreacting, but “men should never tell a woman to relax,” says executive coach and licensed therapist Jennifer Musselman. Why? “It invalidates a woman’s feelings and makes her put up a wall in future conversations,” she explains. Instead, Musselman advises you acknowledge your coworker’s feelings, then offer to work together toward a less-frustrating solution.

4. “You look amazing in that dress.”

Anything of a physical nature—even a compliment—can come off as sexual, and can serve to objectify female employees. “Even so-called innocent comments damage your self-confidence and make you feel embarrassed, especially if they’re said in front of other coworkers,” Katz says. Those feelings could cause employees to jump ship for another, less objectifying environment, she adds.

[Related: “I Was Sexually Assaulted And Harassed At Work”]

5. “Let me explain that to you again.”

Mansplaining isn’t about the specific words you use—it’s all about the sentiment behind them. “It’s insulting to a woman’s intelligence to assume we didn’t get it the first time,” says Musselman. “And it’s arrogant and sexist to assume that if we don’t agree with you, we clearly don’t know what we are talking about.” Enough said.  

6. “You handled that well—for a woman.”

According to Katz, saying a female employee handled anything well “for a woman” is akin to comparing her to a man. “If you’re comparing her to a male or anyone else in the office, that may make her feel inadequate for no reason,” Katz says, “especially if the comment was supposed to be a compliment.” So when it comes to compliments, stop short of comparing female workers to anyone—but especially men.

[Related: 4 Things Every Woman Must Know Before A Salary Negotiation]

7. “Are you going to get pregnant again?”

A woman coming back to work post-pregnancy is no excuse to pry into her private life. “Not only is it a personal matter, but it’s the basis for lawsuits,” etiquette expert April Masini warns. “Keep your conversations only about things above the waist—or better yet, above the neck.”

[Related: Ikea Announces 4 Months Paid Parental Leave for All U.S. Employees]

8. “Can you take notes?”

Musselman describes a recent situation in which she—the only female on a call with three men of equal position—was asked to take notes by another man. “Asking a female associate to take notes because it’s a core function of her role is completely reasonable,” she says. “But asking a C-Suite female executive to take notes because she’s the least threatening person is unacceptable and insulting.”

[Related: What to Do When Your Coworkers Find You Intimidating]

9. “Who’d you have to sleep with to get that raise?”

Masini says that if you’re trying to be funny with this comment, you’ve failed. “You should never insinuate that anyone traded sex for work favors,” she says. On the off-chance you have genuine concerns, bring them to human resources. “But,” Masini says, “don’t assume, insult, and dig yourself a hole you won’t easily get out of.”

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