Sheryl Sandberg: Let’s talk about getting pregnant

Sheryl Sandberg

via Bloomberg

I’ve been a (semi-conflicted) fangirl of Sheryl Sandberg’s ever since seeing her TED talk in late 2010. Then there was that glowing New Yorker profile in the summer of 2011. Her perspective as a feminist is definitely very white-educated-privileged-wealthy, which is hard to swallow when you hear her say that women are more to blame for their lack of advancement than societal structures are. I mean, not everybody has Larry Summers as a mentor, Gloria Steinem on speed dial and a wealthy tech CEO as a supportive husband.

Still, a lot of what she espouses regarding changing personal attitudes and behaviors and “leaning in” to your work resonates with me, and I deeply admire her brains, discipline and focus on mentorship. I’ll be downloading her upcoming book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” when it comes out in March. Take my money, Sheryl!

But her panel presentation last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos has been bugging me. Here is one summation of her comments (other coverage of Sandberg at Davos is here and here and pretty much everywhere).

[The correlation between success and likeability has a] very practical consequences for women’s chances to get promoted, she noted.

It leads to phrases like “she’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,” or, “she’s a bit aggressive,” being tossed around casually by managers during performance reviews.

“They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender-specific stereotypes.”

Talking about this unintentional discrimination openly is the only way to make people aware of it and eradicate it, the Facebook executive argued.

Harvard, she said turning to Drew Gilpin Faust, who heads the place and was also on the panel, has managed to close the performance gap between male and female business school students doing precisely that. Addressing the “soft stuff”—no big structural changes needed.

Companies can do much the same, she argued. One step in that direction would be to help women cope with that most dreadful of dreaded questions: “should you be working when you have kids at home?”

How about having employers and managers ask women a different question, suggested Sandberg: have you thought about having a family? Let’s talk about how you’re going to manage through your child-bearing years.

Of course, she joked, nobody in their right mind would dare do so—inquiring about a female employee’s reproductive plans is breaking HR Rule No. 1.

And that, she said, is a problem.

I mean, sure. Shaping corporate culture to be more accommodating to mothers is necessary (especially since our maternity policies in the U.S. are total crap), and being upfront about unspoken truths regarding how to manage personal time, career goals, and work duties is a key first step to doing that. But until we eliminate the stigma on mothers in the workplace — you know, because they’re working and they’re mothers and this is confusing — how does talking about possible future pregnancies do anything except provide additional ammunition for a patriarchal system to stall the advancement of women? Or do we have to start having these blunt, awkward, potentially career-damaging conversations in order to reshape corporate culture? And who the fuck’s business is it anyway if we choose to have kids or not?
Is Sandberg advocating for changing the conversation to better accommodate the needs of women, or advocating for breaching an inviolable right to privacy regarding our reproductive future?

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  • Kayleigh

    Hmm interesting. Maybe I could get on board if they asked that question to men as well -considering the last time I checked, men had families too.

    • honeybee

      Unfortunately there is a difference because not only are women much more likely to take time off, “maternity leave” is actually several forms of leave together – the first portion is for the mother to recover from the physical ordeal. This can’t be shared with men. The second portion is parental leave for which in many countries you can split between either parents. But even if you split the parental leave 50/50 the mother is still away from work longer.

  • Amanda

    This approach assumes all women are capable of having children and want to have children. How would this feel to a trans-woman who isn’t out? Or to a woman that has struggled with infertility, unsupportive partners, etc? What about women who have no interest in having children? As the later, especially working in a male dominated field, I would be really upset if my manager asked me about my child bearing plans. And that goes double if my male coworkers were not asked the same question.

    Work-life balance needs to be prioritized for /all/ people, not just people having or planning to have children. And what’s going on in the life part of the equation is not the business of our bosses unless we choose to make it so.

    • honeybee

      Wouldn’t such people simply indicate they had no current plans to have children and it’d be the end of it? If anything wouldn’t that remove alot of the suspicion and stigma around the person b/c now everyone is clear?

      This issue is very dear to me since I’m currently trying to have my 2nd child while working.

  • honeybee

    The only part I’m not sure about is: ” And who the fuck’s business is it anyway if we choose to have kids or not?”

    It sounds obvious at first, until you consider the potential impact on an employer. An employer has a very valid and legitimate stake in what their employees do reproduction wise. Someone who has a child will require more time off work and have less work flexibility then someone who is childless. So they have a vested interest in knowing what your plans are.

    I still don’t think they should ask you about them, at least not in an improper manner, but to say it’s none of their business is clearly not true.

    • Jackie

      I agree with this statement. I am currently pregnant with my second and took it a step further and gave my employer a “heads up” last year that I was planning my second. I was the only one in the company in my role and I knew that he needed to hire additional people and train them before I just disappeared for 12 weeks. I find it to be a professional courtesy. It works well for me because of the nature of my company, and may not work for everyone, but I know that if the role was flipped, I would appreciate early notice. It also comes across as me being “for the company” which I think looks well.