Here's Why Asking 'What Do You Do?' Is Really Pretty Sexist
Work + Life Balance

Here's Why Asking "What Do You Do?" Is Really Pretty Sexist

by Kit Warchol
January 20, 2016

LAST WEEK, MY MOTHER BROUGHT UP AN ARTICLE SHE'D RECENTLY READ IN HER FAVORITE NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN, SOCIAL Q'S. IT INVOLVED THE UNFAIR TREATMENT OF WOMEN AT SOCIAL GATHERINGS. 

Specificallly, the topic (called "Chit Chat Chart," which you can find here) addressed a clear bias a reader had noticed at parties when men received different small talk questions than their partners. Here's her question in full: 

 At parties, it bothers me that my husband is asked immediately what he does for a living, and I never am. Lately, I’ve tried to “lean in” and ask other women about their work. But this has backfired: One wife looked uncomfortable before she started explaining what she used to do. Is it a faux pas to ask strangers about their jobs? - Allison, Texas 

Suffice to say, even in 2016, there's still a fairly big issue with latent sexism in social circles—and we don't think it's just in an unnamed city in Texas. Most of us have encountered a situation where we were asked about our children, romantic relationships, or hobbies first and our professions second. You may remember Jennifer Garner's impassioned speech a couple years back about how every one of her interviews include the question "How do you balance work and family?" while her then husband, Ben Affleck, got questioned most often about the breasts of his Gone Girl costar. Hollywood horror story. 

It's not fair that women get asked different questions when it comes to their careers. 

So: yes, it's not fair that women get asked different questions, particularly when it comes to career topics. And yes, Allison's absolutely right to deplore that inconsistency. But that's where the Social Q's response veers from all expectations—and why my mother found it a worthy anecdote to recount during our weekly phone call. Because rather than denouncing sexism at networking events (then moving on to the next etiquette question), the New York Times argues we should "set aside the gender difference you've noted."

Huh?

Turns out, The New York Times feels the issue goes much deeper than a latent gender bias, a fact that at least partially explains why Allison got an uncomfortable response from another woman when she asked her what she did for a living. Here's the actual question we should be asking:

Why has what we do become a stand-in for who we are?

In the same way that we get accustomed to asking "So what's your major?" at college parties, we've been trained to ask "What do you do?" at any social or networking event. It's often how we start new conversations, and if it's not our immediate opener, it still lands in the first handful of questions we ask.

But have you met a millennial? I've lost count of how many friends I have whose career path requires listing job titles off on two hands. Graphic designer, web developer, brand strategist, ceramicist, sustainable woollen goods maker (shout out to my girl, Alexis).  Answering the question in a few seconds is hard, if not impossible.

Then there's the loaded element of money. By answering, the person who asked us can make gross generalizations about our daily lives, income, and stability. "I'm a lawyer" gives a very different impression than "I'm an aspiring actress." Chances are, when you're asked, the question makes you uncomfortable or defensive at best, and at worse? It just makes you feel rotten. 

Yet knowing this, we still stare at people over a diluted punch bowl at networking mixers and ask the question we most hate getting asked ourselves. And so The New York Times argues that it's not about evening the playing field by asking the same question of women that we do men, but rather, it's about changing the dialogue entirely. In the end, people aren't defined by their profession, but asking them to explain their work implies you think they are. 

So next time we meet, whether you're a man or women, a millennial or mentor, I'll guess I'll ask you what you're reading. 

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What do you think? Is it acceptable to ask people what they do at social events? Is there a better way of making it fair for men and women?