One reader writes:
I work for a government agency. I love my job. Everyone who works in the office is kind and nice to work with. About a year ago, just before many of us were sent from home to work because of Covid, I was asked by a male colleague in the hallway: “When are you due?”
I smiled. I said, “Oh, I’m not pregnant.” He was humiliated and apologized.
We went home for a while and then we were all called back to the office. Shortly after we all returned, within three weeks three different colleagues asked me the same question (all women this time). I always did the same – and declared with a smile that I was not pregnant. They were always confused, embarrassed, apologetic. I said it was okay because I knew they weren’t trying to hurt my feelings.
But it really wasn’t okay. I would always cry later when I was alone. I was starting to be scared of going to the office in the first place, especially when I had to leave my desk and meet other people. I spent a lot of time in the mornings tormenting myself about what to wear to work that would fit our dress code and also make me the least likely to look pregnant.
I went to my manager. He was very nice and understanding. He got the HR person to talk to me. She was also very kind and understanding. I said that I really wanted HR to provide all employees with some kind of blanket reminder not to speak up about their coworkers’ bodies. She agreed, but I also got the impression that she hoped the problem would just go away. She kept saying that she couldn’t believe that so many people would think it was okay to ask me that in advance.
That was about a month ago. A statement from HR is not available. And today it happened again. I was riding the elevator with another colleague, she asked me when I was due, I explained that I was not pregnant and she said, “I’m sorry. Bless your heart. “We laughed.
HR told me to come and see them if it happens again, but after the last meeting I really don’t want to end up crying and embarrassed in their office while she tries to convince me I don’t look pregnant. Of course I do, otherwise it wouldn’t happen again.
What can I do at this point? My sister suggested that I just start hitting the next person who asks, but somehow I think I might lose my job and I love my job.
Agggh, why are people doing this? At this point it should be safe something Awareness in the culture that you are not commenting on other people’s bodies and you definitely don’t assume someone is pregnant unless they told you they are pregnant. (But we can’t have this because it is believed that women’s bodies, and pregnant bodies in particular, are publicly scrutinized and commented on.)
But my screaming doesn’t help you.
I think you can go back to HR. If they hadn’t already told you that they are going to remind you not to comment on people’s bodies, I probably wouldn’t have suggested going to them at all because realistically, HR probably can’t prevent it. It’s a problem in our wider culture. But they told you they would bring it up, and it sucks that they never pulled it off. When they thought more about it and decided it wasn’t the right move, they owed you a follow up to explain it. It’s not okay to tell you that they do, don’t do it, and don’t acknowledge you.
So you could go back to them to hold them accountable to their word, if nothing else.
But because our culture has ingrained this so deeply in people, I would also think about changing the way you react in the moment when it happens again. You don’t have to smile at people and react in a way that puts their wellbeing above your own. You can look horrified / annoyed / angry. You can say, “Why should you ask that?” You can say, “I’m not pregnant” with a coldness in your voice that means it won’t warm up for a week. You can calmly and emotionlessly say “I’m not pregnant” and let her come to the horror of her remark on her own. You can say, “Please never ask anyone this if you don’t know they are actually pregnant.” You can respond however you like – just put your own comfort before your own. (And I notice your previous answers already might prioritize your own comfort – it may be the easiest for you to use, and that’s fine, too. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to smile and be nice so that the person doesn’t feel uncomfortable. This is a situation where you are entitled to only care for yourself.)
I wish you could do more! I’m sorry for having to think so much about your body at work, a place where you should be able to just be your brain. It sucks and it’s not right.