I told the interviewer I wasn't planning on having more children. I got the job
Sheryl Sandberg strikes me as a sensible, smart, ambitious woman. She is Facebook’s chief operating officer, a mother of two, and a self-styled champion of equality at work. After years spent “never talking about women in the workplace”, she has just written an entire book on the topic, Lean In.
So what is she doing suggesting that company bosses should be allowed to ask female employees if they’re planning to start a family?
Sandberg, who was one of a handful of women to speak at the World Economic Forum at Davos last week, says we need a more open dialogue about gender in the workplace – and that includes discussing with female employees whether they plan to have children.
“Every HR department tells you not to do that . . . but we need to have a much more open conversation,” she says. “Think of it like a marathon. Everyone’s cheering the men on. The messages for women are different: are you sure you want to run, don’t you have kids at home? We have to talk about this.”
To an extent, she has a point. Sure, prying into the private family circumstances of your current or future employees is intrusive, and possibly illegal. But whatever the law says, some employers still do it anyway.
They might scrutinise the ring finger to see if she’s engaged or married. They might Google her, or check her out on Facebook and Twitter. They might make a mental note when she starts taking time off for medical appointments. (They may do all this to a man, too, but it’s not usually so they can work out whether he’s planning to become a father or not.)
Worse still, they might play it safe, and avoid hiring women in their late 20s and 30s altogether.
This isn’t fair on anyone. It isn’t fair on women who would like to work and have a family, and feel confident that, with a little support, they can manage both successfully. It certainly isn’t fair on women who have no intention of having more children – or any children at all – but whose career path may be in danger of derailing anyway, because prospective employers aren’t able to see beyond their uterus.
I’m not without sympathy for employers, either – especially those running small businesses, who know they would be in dire straits if many of their female staff went on maternity leave simultaneously.
So is Sandberg right? Would it be simpler if we could all just be grown-up about it, and confront the elephant-print babygro in the room?
Here’s a small disclosure: I once did just that. I announced in a job interview that I had two small children who had been born within 18 months of each other, and I had no imminent plans to add to that number.