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The interview question that really shouldn’t be asked and how to navigate it with confidence

In the ever-evolving landscape of gender equality, there is a persistent obstacle that continues to hinder the progress of women—a deeply rooted assumption about caregiving and their commitment to their careers. Alarmingly, a woman doesn't even have to be pregnant or actively parenting to be impacted; she simply needs to be of childbearing age. Whilst legislation makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees in relation to their relationship status, pregnancy, family, and caring responsibilities, we continue to hear reports of women, particularly those in their 30s, being profiled with inappropriate questions during interviews. So, let's examine what questions are and aren't appropriate, as well as how to navigate them should they arise in the workplace or job interview.

Samantha* is an accomplished executive in Financial Services. Her role at a fintech company was made redundant, so she entered the job market in search of a new position. This included applying for the Head of Investor Relations position with a local Venture Capital firm. She had previously met the CEO and felt at ease as she sat down for the interview. The interview started well, but then the CEO asked her, "So, I hear you became a mum last year. Are you planning on having any more kids?" This was an unexpected question for which she hadn't prepared. She fumbled for an answer and said something like, "Oh, maybe in time. It's not my focus right now." Reflecting on the incident, she regretted not providing a more polished response but was simply shocked to be asked such a question. Unfortunately, she didn't get the job and was told she needed "a larger network of contacts" to succeed in that role. Was that the real reason, or was it her answer to the question about having more children?

Samantha's* experience is not unique. A 2014 inquiry from the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed that it is common for women to face inappropriate questions or comments about their plans to have children and their commitment to work during the recruitment process. A survey of 500 managers conducted by law firm Slater & Gordon showed that over 40% admitted to being wary of hiring women of childbearing age, while a similar number expressed caution about hiring women who already have children or mothers for senior roles. Unfortunately, very few individuals ever lodge complaints about such discrimination, whether during the recruitment process or in the workplace. Nevertheless, complaints related to pregnancy constituted the largest category of grievances filed with the Fair Work Ombudsman, accounting for 35% of all complaints in 2014-2015.

More mothers than ever are participating in the workforce in Australia. However, negative stereotypes and discrimination against working mums continue to persist. There is a persistent assumption that they are less committed and competent in their work compared to their male peers, and that they will likely want to work less or find their job too demanding once they have a family. These assumptions lead many employers to view women of childbearing age as risky or potentially costly hires. Consequently, women's career opportunities are disproportionately limited, which has far-reaching consequences for their career progression, earnings, financial stability, and well-being. It is disheartening to realise that in 2023, many employers still view pregnant women and mothers as burdens, considering maternity leave as an indulgence rather than an entitlement—similar to sick leave, superannuation, or holiday pay.

Although discriminating against any candidate based on relationship status, pregnancy, plans to become pregnant, or caring responsibilities is unlawful, many prospective employers still fall into the trap of asking inappropriate and potentially discriminatory questions during the interview process. While such questioning may appear harmless, it can actually be a serious violation of legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, the Fair Work Act 2009, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, as well as State and Territory Anti-Discrimination Laws. It is crucial for employers to proactively establish inclusive and non-discriminatory recruitment practices that respect individuals' privacy and focus on their qualifications, skills, and experiences to determine their suitability for the job, rather than their personal circumstances or family plans.

So, how does one navigate the interview process and respond to family-related questions if they arise? First and foremost, it is essential to prepare for interviews by crafting thoughtful responses to potential family-related questions. Here are some examples:

1. Question: "Do you have any children or are you planning to have children in the near future?"

Response: "Thank you for your interest in my personal life. As a 
professional, I am fully committed to my career and dedicated to delivering exceptional results. My focus is on contributing my skills and expertise to this role and driving the success of the organisation."

2. Question: "How do you balance work and family responsibilities?"

Response: "I appreciate your concern about work-life balance. I believe in maintaining a healthy integration between my personal and professional life. I am adept at managing my time efficiently and prioritising tasks to ensure I fulfil all my responsibilities effectively, both at work and in my personal life."

3. Question: "Are you planning to take maternity leave anytime soon?"

Response: "While I understand the importance of planning for leave, my commitment to this position is unwavering. I am fully prepared to fulfil my duties and responsibilities, and if any situations arise, I am confident in my ability to manage and ensure a smooth transition of my workload."

4. Question: "How will you handle your family commitments and potential conflicts with work?"

Response: "I believe in open communication and collaboration. Should any conflicts or commitments arise, I am proactive in finding solutions that benefit both my family and work obligations. I prioritise effective time management, clear communication, and leveraging support systems to maintain a healthy balance and meet all responsibilities."

5. Question: "Are you planning to have more children?"

Response: "My personal plans regarding family expansion do not impact my dedication and commitment to my professional responsibilities. I am fully invested in my career growth and contributing to the success of this organisation. My focus is on leveraging my skills and experience to drive results."

When responding to such questions, it is important to maintain a professional tone, redirect the focus back to your qualifications and commitment to the role, and assert your dedication to your career without divulging personal information that is not relevant to the job. By shifting the focus away from personal matters and towards your expertise, you can effectively showcase your suitability for the position. Use the interview as an opportunity to assess the company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Inquire about their policies and initiatives that support a diverse workforce and promote work-life integration. Organisations like Work180 can be a valuable resource for identifying inclusive employers when job searching. By employing these strategies, you can confidently navigate family-related questions while highlighting your professional merits during job interviews.

The bias against women concerning family and pregnancy continues to undermine their opportunities and progression in the workplace, impacting their careers, financial security, and overall well-being. On an individual basis, we can rise above this by preparing thoughtful responses in interviews and redirecting the focus to our skills and abilities that are relevant to the role. Furthermore, we should use interviews as an opportunity to assess an employer's commitment to inclusive workplaces. It is crucial to advocate for inclusive policies and recruitment practices in our own workplaces. Together, we can create a future where bias no longer limits women's success.

*Names have been changed. 

 Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014 ‘Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review - Report’ p.67



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