At a conference last week, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg told employers that they should talk to their female employees about pregnancy. According to Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post, she even offered a kind of script for managers:
“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.”
First of all, this seems to somewhat contradict other advice Sandberg has given—which is “don’t leave before you leave” or don’t start thinking about how you need to alter your career to accommodate children before you have them. Secondly, putting aside the fact that this is just barely legal—you’re not allowed to ask a woman about her pregnancy specifically, though you can talk generally about pregnancy—Sandberg is not doing much to counter charges of being out of touch when she makes these sort of recommendations.
Certainly it would be wonderful to work in a world where employers wanted to help their female employees work through their pregnancies and the early years of their children’s lives. Though I’m not so sure a conversation starter like this is the best way to go about it, since women’s reproductive choices are incredibly personal, and this could be perceived as invasive. But employers, in general, don’t care about whether moms move up the ranks or how they manage their leave, and legally, they don’t have to. Which is why, when I asked Dina Bakst, a women’s rights attorney and the co-founder of A Better Balance, an advocacy group for working families, for her take, she said: “Let's be clear—most of us need more than a good conversation with our boss. We need workplace policies—and laws—on our side. “
Only 16 percent of companies offer fully paid parental leave. If you’re high up in a company—what is considered a “key employee”—a corporation is fully within its rights to refuse to reinstate you if you take FMLA leave, which is the unpaid 12 weeks of time off to which all new parents are entitled (provided they work for companies with 50 or more employees). The unemployment rate is still over 7 percent, and competition for jobs is fierce. What’s the incentive, in the current legal framework, for employers to accommodate new parents? The prospect of Sheryl Sandberg giving them a special gold star?
Furthermore, I don’t think it’s good for employers to separate pregnancy from other major life events that employees may go through. Employees get cancer. Their parents or spouses fall ill. There are all different reasons an employee might need to be a caregiver, and pregnancy shouldn’t take priority. In fact, Google—where Sandberg used to work—is one of the only places I’ve ever heard of that has a policy of accommodating all employees, not just mothers. As Hanna Rosin described it, when Marissa Mayer was a Vice President at Google, she allowed “employees to identify their personal priorities, so a mom could leave early for a kid’s soccer game and a young man with no kids could leave early for a weekly potluck dinner with his old college roommates.”
Google has a ton of money and its employees are highly trained and specialized. Even if they wanted to, most corporations couldn’t be so accommodating. We live in an at-will working country, which means you can pretty much get fired for any (legal) reason, and proving that someone is illegally discriminating against you because you’re a parent is incredibly difficult and costly. Sandberg has been flying all over the world talking to women while promoting her book. Surely she’s met enough of them to know that while her advice might be useful in Silicon Valley’s tech utopia, it won’t work in the real world.
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