Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is taking flak for suggesting that employers should be allowed to ask women if they plan to get pregnant. My knee-jerk reaction was that employers should not be able to ask this. One, it’s nobody’s business, and two, as soon as a woman says it’s a possibility, her chance of getting promoted or of getting plum assignments goes down the tubes. If people assume you’re firmly on the mommy track, you stagnate, because the mommy track — at least in some folks’ eyes — is notoriously exempt from running on the get-ahead-in-business track.
Huffington Post writer Gene Marks points out in his editorial on the subject that asking this rather personal question is appropriate if you’re planning to make a substantial investment in someone, perhaps in leadership development, for example.
It would help to know if a woman wants to start a family, or if she plans to come back to the company six weeks after giving birth, if at all. He said men should be scrutinized for their paternity plans too, not with the intention of denying talent opportunities, but to better plan when and how those opportunities are presented.
Not being able to ask these kinds of questions perpetuates the problem: “If we can’t even bring up this kind of legitimate business issue, then how can men and women ever work together on an equal level? And how can a woman succeed in the corporate world if she’s made to tip-toe around issues like pregnancy? Women get pregnant!” Marks writes.
It’s really no different from any other diversity issue. People are uncomfortable with certain topics of conversation, so they’re either ignored or botched, and the blowback feels so horrid, people determine it’s not worth it to try to solve the initial problem. You can’t be afraid to get into the tough subjects, even when there are legalities to consider. I’m sure there’s some clever statute somewhere that prohibits using the word pregnancy in certain types of employment communications, but if so, maybe we need to revisit its usefulness.
When communication, particularly in matters of diversity, is stymied, it often creates more problems. It may be worth it to bear that initial discomfort to address the elephant in the room and avoid its tusks before it tosses you into the nearest tree. Or, you lose talent, are the victim of a lawsuit or face bad publicity because your organizational culture is antiquated and inflexible.
I give Marks props for calling out men as 12-year-old boys at hearts, particularly the older ones who are running most of today’s companies. He’s not the first person I’ve heard or read who suggested that when the old guard dies out, a lot of the diversity problems we’re suffering will die with them.