The Words That Get in The Way


Apr 26, 2016


If you’re a woman, it’s tough to get through a whole day without hearing something that makes you cringe. Most of the time, it’s meant in an understanding way or as a statement of fact. But intent doesn’t actually make it helpful or true. Ahead of our ‘Women & Work’ discussion, we thought of all of the tiny phrases and little jabs that we’ve learned to brush off, but wish we didn’t have to. And we’ve crafted responses to each of these small, specious shibboleths we hear from others – and from ourselves.

On The Job

“You won’t work so hard once you have kids.”

The tough thing about this one is that it’s a twisted compliment – so it’s difficult to get upset. Your boss and/or colleague thinks you’re hard-working: Great! But… they also don’t think that’s an innate trait, just a temporary one: troubling.

This requires a response that walks the line: “Well, I do aspire to be like you.”

“Obviously, once you have kids, you won’t want to travel as much.”

It’s amazing what people think is obvious. We think it’s obvious that we’d want to do our jobs, whether or not they require travel. Might parenthood make it difficult? Sure. And while that might be what this phrase intends to recognize, it’s not what’s actually being said.

So help them realize how oblivious their statement really is: “Obviously, once I have kids, I’ll also want to shave my hair off. Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we were just making ridiculous assumptions.”

“Let [name] do that; S/he doesn’t have kids.”

Again, it’s difficult to get upset with this one. It’s such a nice offer! It’s a recognition that it’s difficult to balance work and family! Isn’t it? Or is it an assumption that you can’t, that you aren’t up to the task? (Not to mention the assumption that people without children have fewer commitments.)

Make it clear that you’re up to the task with a: “S/he also doesn’t have my job. I’ll do it, thanks.”

“Could you make tea/coffee for the team? Thanks.”

It’s happened to at least one Swaddle Team member. Her strategy? Bite the bullet and make the coffee – but burn it to hell and back. Or ‘accidentally’ put salt in the tea instead of sugar. You’ll never be asked to make another cuppa again.

“Why are you so ambitious? Why does this raise/promotion mean so much to you?”

It’s a question never posed to men, whether or not they end up getting the promotion. And it makes a tricky situation – making the case for a raise or promotion – even trickier, particularly for women, who are conditioned to play down their achievements.

While we would all love to tell off the person asking this, it probably won’t get you what you want. It’s a tightrope act, being a woman. So practice your balance with this response: “I think you’re mistaking ambition for a desire to see my high performance and capabilities recognized.”

“Why are you negotiating? Your husband has a good salary.”

Negotiating your salary is difficult enough, particularly for women who notoriously undervalue themselves. (We wonder why?) Then this phrase pops up, and the process grinds to a halt with a sound like, “Whaaaaaaat????”

Keep the momentum going by addressing this elephant-in-the-room of a phrase: “My husband’s salary is none of your business. We’re discussing my work, my abilities, and my salary.”

“Don’t you feel bad your kids are in day care all day?”

This one just makes us laugh, because seriously, co-workers and bosses, where do you want us? At work and doing our jobs? Or at home, not accomplishing the work you need done?

So throw it back at them: “I’d love it if you paid me to stay at home with my kids, but you don’t, so, no; I don’t feel bad.”

Or better yet, if it’s a father asking you this, consider saying: “Do you?” It won’t have quite the same effect, as you’ll probably have to explain that leaving your kids in day care all day is the same as him leaving his kids all day. But it might be more satisfying.

“Speak up.”

Ugh, this one again. Fire back with, “Listen better.” That will at least create a silence you can fill.

At Home or With Friends

“It’s great you’ve found something to keep you busy.”

Also a phrase we’re personally familiar with. Women’s jobs and careers are so often belittled with these words. And while in print they look like the acidic congratulations of a frenemy, they’re most often uttered by clueless family and friends in a bid to be supportive. High marks for the attempt, but point out how much they missed the part by taking their pants with a: “Yes! And how is that teaching/banking/medical/law/retail hobby of yours going?”

“[Name] is such a good dad; he changes nappies!”

Look, dealing with dirty nappies is part of being a parent. It doesn’t make you a good or bad dad; it just makes you a dad. So let’s stop praising men for doing the bare minimum for their children. Or at the very least, point out how women do that much and more: “Yes, and [name] is such a good mom – she gave birth!”

“Is the food in place for the family while you’re gone?”

Many people legitimately have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, but that’s not what this question speaks to. This assumption behind this question is that, without wife or mom there to feed them, your family won’t be able to survive.

Reassure the worrier: “No, but I’ve taught them all how to forage, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

From Our Own Damn Mouths

“Oh, I’ll do that!”

Have you ever said this phrase? A second-cousin of it is, “Just let me do it; it’ll go faster.” Ladies, we are conditioned to constantly do and care, so when someone steps in to help, it can be difficult to let go. But for our own sanity, we need to. If it’s something above-and-beyond helpful, a simple “thank you” will do. But if it’s just a matter of someone pulling their own weight, kick back with a glass of wine and enjoy.

“Will you babysit while I [errand/meeting]?”

We admit it: It’s crossed our lips a couple of times. But when we say ‘babysit’ to a spouse, it only reinforces the idea that basic childcare is an out-of-the-way favour. Watching your own kids isn’t babysitting; it’s being a parent. It’s an easy one to rephrase: “Hey, I have [errand/meeting]. Can you make sure you’re free to be with the kids then?”

“It’s just this thing I do on the side.”

This just plays into the hands of the frenemy phrase above. When we downplay our own professional efforts, it only makes it easier for others to do so. Taking pride in your achievements and sharing them doesn’t mean you’re bragging. Try this instead: Briefly describe your work as you would to a client or investor. Enough said.

What do you think — did we miss any? Tell us in the comments!


Written By The Swaddle Team

  1. Uma Parihar

    Thank you Swaddle Team for so thoroughly analyzing the status of a working woman ! I hope it will be an eye opener for the people we are surrounded by and force them to reconsider their views. We deserve a respectful and dignified life on equal terms!

  2. Malika

    “Don’t be emotional”, with extra marks for reacting that way to a argument in which I use data.


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