coworkers are joking that I’m pregnant after a couple of absences

A reader writes:

I am a woman (this is relevant information). I have worked in my current office for over 2 years and began shortly after graduating from college. I am one of the younger people in the office.

Last May, I got married. I recently learned from a coworker (female) that three of my colleagues, including my boss, were joking around that I am pregnant. They chalked this up to my not attending an upcoming offsite meeting (I have a previous family obligation); being out for a doctor appointment (an annual physical); and taking one sick day (for a head cold). I was not there to refute them but even if I had been there, I do not know how to handle it.

My workplace is small and has no HR department. What is the best way to handle these kind of remarks? My workplace has a boys’ club feel that seems to encourage that kind of joke.

Ugh, they’re stupid.

It’s pretty likely that they genuinely didn’t mean anything by it and were just being dumb, but it really is dumb.

It’s up to you if you want to address it or not. Personally, I’d let it go unless they say something similar when you’re around, because the reality is that sometimes people make stupid jokes and the best thing to do if you want to be treated as a peer is to have a reasonably thick skin. You’d certainly be in the right to speak up, but that doesn’t mean that you’d ultimately be helping yourself, if it causes them to see you as overly sensitive.

But if they say it in front of you at some point, I’d tell them to cut it out. My wording would depend on the office culture and your relationship with the people doing the joking. Depending on what type of relationship you have with them, I’d say, “That topic isn’t up for speculation” or “Can you guys cut that out? Thanks.”  If they protest that they’re just joking and you should lighten up, reply to that with, “I know you didn’t mean any harm, but joking about women in that way isn’t really appropriate at work.”

You can also enlist the coworker who told you about this in responding on the spot if it happens again when you’re not around.

And frankly, if you know any of these guys well enough and are comfortable doing it, you could also take them aside and educate them on why this isn’t appropriate. You could explain that interpreting women’s behavior through a particular lens just because they’re women is offensive, particularly in a professional context. And you also could explain that joking about someone being pregnant is always a bad idea because you never know if that person might be struggling with fertility issues — or, in fact, might actually be pregnant and not ready to share it. You’d be doing them and everyone else a favor if you’re willing to educate them about this … but it totally depends on your relationship with them and whether you’re comfortable doing that.

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