Here's a hypothetical.
Your boss calls you in and says, "I just wanted you to know that if you are thinking about having children one day, and are wondering how pregnancy and motherhood can be combined with your career, my door is always open and I’m glad to talk."
Has anything like that ever happened at your office?
How would you react if it did?
It often happens in Sheryl Sandberg’s office -- she is the one regularly offering the open door at Facebook, she says -- and among the many changes she would like to see in the national workplace is that this become the unremarkable norm.
"We know that we lose a lot of our high-earning women... during the childbearing years," she told the audience at the Salesforce.com Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week. "What do we do about that? Nothing. When do we mention it? Never ever."
Your first reaction -- and likely the first reaction of most managers and HR reps -- is that conversations like this are illegal. Anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from asking such personal questions, no?
Not exactly. True, it isn’t legal to quiz an employee about her family plans, and it is definitely illegal to discriminate against her because she is pregnant. But it's not illegal to talk about pregnancy per se. Sandberg first raised that argument in her best-selling book Lean In, and has been championing it around the country in the months since.
What has happened, she argues, is that a well-intentioned, necessary protection on privacy has become one more way that women are sabotaged at work. In the same way that heightened sensitivity about harassment and scandal has led male managers to think twice before mentoring a female employee, lest things be misunderstood (64 percent of men who are VPs and above told the Center for Life Work Policy that they hesitate to meet one-on-one with more junior women), the belief that any talk about pregnancy is forbidden has left women without guidance, answers and support.
"There are very good reasons why people don't talk about this in the office," Sandberg said in a telephone interview today. "For too long women were afraid it would be held against them if they were pregnant or even thinking of having children -- afraid that someone was going to write us off, or start giving the good projects to someone else." And managers, she says, "didn't want to be seen as holding this against women." But the "unintended consequences of well intentioned actions," she says, are that "we don't help women enough. We don't acknowledge that this is complicated and help them plan for it."
Or, as Joseph M. Yaffe of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom wrote when Sandberg began to raise this issue last spring: “Does the desire to avoid doing the 'wrong' thing deter managers and supervisors from doing the 'right' thing to support their valued colleagues?”
Sandberg has been getting specific with her recommendations, offering the audience a script of sorts:
You may want to have kids one day. My door is open. Come talk to me anytime.
If you want to have children I'm not going to give the good [opportunities] to someone else because you're pregnant. And I'm going to help you take a leave and come back if that's what you want to do.
She’s had scores of these kinds of conversations, she says, especially when she is interviewing female candidates and she fears they might turn down the job because they worry it will not be a fit with their family life. But she understands that she is an outlier, and that the message that pregnancy is not an employer's business has been communicated so well in recent decades that it is potentially hurting women.
Turning to the Dreamforce audience, she asked:
"Raise your hand if you've called someone in your office and said, 'You may want to have kids one day. I'd love to talk to you about it.'"
Pausing to scan the room, she said, "Yeah, I've never gotten a hand."
Ideally, she says, the conversations she is currently championing will eventually not be necessary, because it will be understood that the workplace will support women trying to mesh work and parenting. But that day is a long way away, in her eyes. "It would be great if the conversation was not necessary – great goal," she says. "But for now, silence is killing us."