At a recent conference in San Francisco, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg talked about a subject that many employers often avoid: pregnancy in the work place. Sandberg, whose impressive resume includes past jobs at Google and the United States Secretary of the Treasury, has two children of her own. With the release of her book, Lean In, Sandberg has been promoting the idea of being open with female employees about family planning.
Sandberg’s argument is that employers too often shy away from the topic and alienate working women who also plan on having children while employed. With recent stories of pregnancy discrimination and breastfeeding woes at work, it’s easy to see why the subject carries an air of taboo at the office. But, as Sandberg argues, talking about family planning doesn’t have to remain off-limits; her logic is entirely reasonable: “for too long women were afraid it would be held against them if they were pregnant or even thinking of having children…we don’t help women enough. We don’t acknowledge that this is complicated and help them plan for it.” With proper HR limits set, Sandberg’s idea of meshing family and work life will make it easier for women to navigate starting a family without automatically feeling as though they are putting work aside once they become pregnant.
Sheryl’s “script” offered to those attending her seminar is simple; her suggestion for an employer is to open the conversation with three basic statements: “You may want to have kids one day. My door is open. Come talk to me anytime.” Sandberg believes that these suggestions can assuage a lot of fear working women sometimes feel about being passed by for promotions, good work projects, and other work place incentives. In a perfect world, women would not associate having a family with losing good opportunities at work. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sandberg herself even admitted that bypassing the family planning conversation itself would be ideal if it were a common understanding that a women’s worth in the work place did not hinge on whether or not she wanted a family. We will not reach that point though until we begin conversations like the ones Sandberg has suggested.
Realistic, honest support in the work place can go a long way towards fostering positive relationships between female workers and employers. With so many women contributing to household incomes and working full-time, there is no way to further avoid a woman’s worth at work. Sandberg’s crusade is far from complete, but is heartening to see a woman in a powerful position champion family planning as a practical conversation instead of a potential trap. Motherhood does not change a woman’s working skills and her value should not lessen based on her plans to strike a balance between her family and work lives.
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