3 Women Explain How They’ve Been Discriminated Against for Not Speaking English at Work

Women Talking at Work


AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
July 16, 2024 at 8:15PM UTC
We're all protected from employment discrimination by laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — and that includes protection against discrimination for speaking their native languages in the workplace in most circumstances. The EEOC has stated that any rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace indeed violate the law, unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity
"An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently," according to the EEOC. "Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency."
And even if there is, in fact, a need for an English-only rule, an employer still may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule if the employer has not notified the workers about the rule and the subsequent consequences that can come from violating it.
Yet, women who don't speak English as a first language often face discrimination nonetheless. We reached out to women to share their experiences facing language-based discrimination and just sheer shame in the workplace. Here are their experiences.

1. Not Being Allowed to Communicate in Other Languages Can Be Frustrating

For some women who don't speak English as a first language, working in an atmosphere full of English speakers can be frustrating.
"For many roles, I understand that is quite important to speak fluent English and have clear communications skills, but sometimes is very frustrating when you know that the person you are talking to speaks your language and you are not able to help them, because of the workplace rules — so I think sometimes we need to be a bit more flexible, especially in London, where the vast workforce are foreigners with English as a second language," says Lina Usma: Director of EXTRA MEDIA 1.
When English isn't necessary, some women like Usma advocate for flexibility. Clear communication is key, and sometimes speaking in their native language allows for that.

2. English-Only Workspaces Can Feel Exclusive for ESL Employees

Some women have faced shame for speaking other languages with each other, even though English isn't a necessity internally.
"Sometimes I speak Spanish with my colleagues because a lot of us are Latina, and it's just easier and more effective to communicate with each other that way," says Jen, who works in sales for a large insurance company. "I have to speak English with clients and customers when I'm selling insurance, of course. But, internally, it's just easier to speak Spanish when I can — and  I don't feel like it's negatively impacting anyone else around me. I find that my native English-speaking coworkers tend to frown upon it though. I've heard them make comments, calling our corner of the office by different Spanish-speaking country names."
Jen's boss would tell her to speak English in the office so she's not excluding anyone, but the truth is that she felt excluded sometimes herself because English isn't her native language.
"Sure, I can speak and understand English but if I want to have real, meaningful conversation with coworkers, it's a bit more difficult for me to express myself."

3. Some Women Hear Directly Derogatory Language

Some women have dealt with experiences of people using directly derogatory language.
"I speak Spanish with a lot of my coworkers because it's easier for us," says Valeria, who works as a senior caretaker in an assisted-living home. "Sometimes the people we're taking care of will make rude comments to us about going back to where we came from if they're having a rough day, or just asking us how we got here in the first place or calling us certain names that aren't appropriate these days. I was born in New York, but my father's family is from all over Central America and my mother is from Spain. So I have a hugely Spanish-speaking family, and I grew up surrounding myself with other Spanish speakers who understood my family, even though I really grew up as a native English speaker at school here. "
While Valerie says she and her colleagues try to chalk it up to the women and men at work just being older, "as they tend to say whatever they want when they hit a certain age," she says that it still does insult her.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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