7 Things You Should Never Say to a Female Co-Worker

Throughout the years, the workforce has gotten more inclusive. That means there are more women and people of color, as well as more acceptance of how people label themselves when it comes to gender identity. Offices across the country are more of a melting pot.

However, with that inclusion also comes some awkward situations. You might find yourself in a position where you’ve put your foot in your mouth, and you don’t know how to recover. Well, we’re here to help you avoid some of those situations. Here are seven things you should never say to a female co-worker.

1. You should smile more

colleagues gossiping about a female co-worker

There is an unspoken expectation that women should appear happy at all times. | iStock.com/MachineHeadz

Many women hear this statement often when they walk down the street. Sometimes a stranger will pass by a woman, and if she doesn’t have a pleasant look on her face she might hear, “Why don’t you smile?”

There is an unspoken expectation that women should appear happy at all times. This behavior often spills into the workplace. For example, in a recent Slate column, one reader said she was having this very problem at the law firm where she worked. Her supervisor told her she would never make partner unless she smiled more. She was doing a good job, but the only complaint she received was that she didn’t smile. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to look serious, and people rarely protest. If you notice a female co-worker who always looks stern, don’t ask her to smile more. Just let her do her work, and leave her alone.

Next: Who’s the boss?

2. You’re bossy!

Concept for businesswoman in expensive hotel

What you perceive as bossy is really just assertiveness. | iStock.com/dima_sidelnikov

A “bossy” man is usually referred to as assertive. A “bossy” woman is, well, bossy. Don’t put a female co-worker down for asserting herself. She should be able to ask for, and get, what she wants without fear of being seen as disruptive or uncooperative. Before making a comment like this, think about whether you would say it to a male colleague who is behaving the same way as your female colleague. If not, then you know right away you should keep quiet.

Next: You look different.

3. Did you gain or lose weight?

woman on scale

If you see that a female co-worker has lost or gained weight, don’t say anything. | iStock.com/nensuria

Women face a lot of pressure to look good. The slightest weight gain or loss is often met with unwanted stares and comments. It’s difficult enough to learn how to tactfully manage questions from friends and family during social gatherings, so when it happens at work, it can be even more unsettling.

The work environment requires a certain balance of grace and assertiveness in a situation like this. Remaining composed at work is key, so when a co-worker presents a woman in the office with a question like this, it can be challenging to know how to respond. If you see that a female co-worker has lost or gained weight, don’t say anything. Her eating habits are none of your business and will likely make her self-conscious.

Next: Relationship status?

4. Are you dating anyone?

Rachel Lindsay is smiling in a red dress for The Bachelorette.

Your question could be perceived as an invitation for a romantic relationship. | ABC

Why are you so interested? Are you part of the casting crew for The Bachelorette? If not, keep queries about your female co-worker’s love life to yourself. This type of question feeds into the stereotype that a woman must be married or dating someone in order to have value.

Also, your question could be perceived as an invitation for a romantic relationship. Depending on your company’s rules on dating and office relationships, it’s possible you could be mistaken for disregarding your human resource department’s guidelines.

Next: An inappropriate question

5. Are you on your period?

Intimate part of a woman's body with roses

Why do you want to know? Are you offering a tampon? | iStock.com/Eziutka

This comment is often given to a woman if she is angry, opinionated, or shows any type of aggression. In some work environments, women get flak for being assertive or displaying a certain degree of passion. Remember, however, that it is her right to be animated or upset about a work issue. We should all be able to express our full range of emotions, regardless of gender (unless, it leads to violent behavior, of course).

In many offices, it is expected for women to always remain calm and agreeable, while men are allowed to display anger and sometimes be aggressive. Don’t encourage these double standards by making inappropriate jokes or comments about a female co-worker having PMS. It’s rude and unnecessary.

Next: You’re making me angry.

6. Why do you always look so angry?

Angry woman calling custom service

Maybe she’s angry at your inappropriate question. | iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

Some people’s resting face looks a bit threatening or even mean. It’s just the way they look. Most of the time, it doesn’t really mean all that much. However, women who look angry tend to hear plenty of opinions on their facial expressions. A woman who looks serious or pensive should not be any of your concern. Give your co-worker a break, and pay more attention to your job.

Next: Do looks matter?

7. You should wear more makeup

woman applying makeup

It’s up to your co-worker to decide how much (if any) makeup she wants to wear. | iStock.com/Eva-Katalin

Unless you work at a makeup counter, this comment isn’t appropriate. It’s up to your co-worker to decide how much (if any) makeup to wear. We hate to break it to you, but the women in your office are not there just for your viewing pleasure. They have decisions to make, meetings to run, and business to take care of. Makeup should be the last thing on their — and your — mind.

Next: Stepping over the line

 Knowing when you’re stepping over the line

woman working

Work should be a comfortable environment. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

You might be so focused on finding the answer to your question that you fail to notice whether you have gone too far with your query. Your best bet is to not ask your co-worker a personal question. However, if your curiosity has gotten the best of you, whatever you do, make sure to pay attention to how your teammate is reacting to your question. Non-verbal cues, such as withdrawing eye contact or tense body language, are usually enough to tell you that you’ve crossed a line. As a rule of thumb, if the question is something you wouldn’t ask your boss, you might not want to ask your co-worker. 

Follow Sheiresa on Twitter @SheiresaNgo.

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