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?

Full disclosure

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.

The interviewer couldn’t have looked more aghast if I’d confessed to indulging in a bit of recreational lapdancing, and he quickly moved on to his next question. Afterwards, I wasn’t proud of myself for doing something so unsisterly, but I wanted the job and I wanted to make sure I was at least on a level playing field with everyone else (and yes, I got it).

I know of another woman who was more forthright with a prospective employer: she told them in one of her first interviews for a high-powered job in a multinational that she wasn’t a mother yet, but hoped she soon would be. She got the job anyway, became pregnant a few months later, took her maternity leave, and then returned – more committed than ever.

Then there’s the Marissa Mayer approach, which definitely isn’t for the fainthearted. When she was headhunted to become chief executive of Yahoo, she told the board she was pregnant, but said she had no intention of disappearing for months on maternity leave, and would instead take a couple of weeks. She returned to her post within three weeks of the birth of her son last October.

In theory, of course, Sandberg is right. It would be great if we could all be upfront about the fact that employees – male and female – have lives and commitments outside of work, and if we could all co-operate to hammer out a solution as to how best to accommodate the two.

But the reality is that few but the most enlightened employers would choose to hire or promote someone who is likely to need between six and nine months off in the near future.

If we make it acceptable to start asking these kinds of questions, we might as well just resurrect the ban on married women in the workplace.

Sandberg has become a kind of cheerleader for mothers at work. When she says she regularly leaves the office by 5.30pm, it spawns headlines. When she announces it’s okay to cry in the office, we stock up on Kleenex.

But we shouldn’t forget that she is speaking from a position of extraordinary privilege – not just because she earned a salary of nearly $30 million in 2011, but also because she is in the enviable position of being able to control her career.

That’s why I will be taking this – along with all the better-hungrier-faster brand of advice in her new book, Lean In – with a pinch of salt. It’s not designed for people like me, or for the 99.9 per cent of us who aren’t on six-, seven- or eight-figure salaries. It might work for women like my friend, or for Marissa Mayer, both of whom are at the top of their game and in a position to call the shots.

But for the rest of us, turning to someone like Sandberg for tips on how to combine your career with having children is like asking Kate Moss for advice on losing three stone, or Katie Taylor about how to drag yourself off the couch and go for a run.

So here’s my advice on coming clean with your employer about your baby plans: unless you’re Sheryl Sandberg, don’t.

Saving face is a waste of space

The great, guilty pleasure of the Hollywood awards season isn’t planning all the movies you won’t manage to see for the rest of the year, or even dissecting the fashion choices or inebriation levels of Tinseltown’s chosen ones. Rather, it is the satisfying annual reminder that money and fame can’t buy you happiness, which comes to you in the form of a live parade of dubious cosmetic-surgery choices – the smooth-as-Polyfilla foreheads; the breasts as round and perfect as two small planets; the lips like a pair of marooned rubber dinghies.

I know it’s not scientific to judge the contentment levels of others by their cosmetic surgery – but what degree of self-doubt would you have to suffer in order to take cells from your bottom and have them injected into your face?

Not as much as you might think, apparently. According to figures released by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons this week, “fat transfers” are one of the fastest-growing trends in cosmetic surgery. These, along with collagen injections, are the procedures that account for the slightly puffy “pillow faces” you see on the red carpet. The idea is that the recipients look discreetly fresh and youthful – instead, though, many of them just look like they’re fresh out of an audition for Finding Nemo.

Palestinians and Cahersiveenians

Co Kerry is once again making world headlines this week, and this time it’s nothing to do with a Healy-Rae. Three teenager charity collectors from Cahersiveen found themselves at the centre of a minor international incident after they stopped Jerusalem Post writer Sarah Honig on the street, jangling “Free Palestine” buckets. Honig asked them who they wanted to free Palestine from; they replied, “the Jews”.

Honig was so offended that she went home and wrote a piece accusing Ireland of having a “history of anti-Semitism without having ever had a sizable Jewish population”. The views she heard on the streets of Caherciveen, she went on, are representative of the “intense bigotry” towards Israel that is felt right across Europe.

“Chuggers” might be annoying, and it’s hard not to have some sympathy for her irritation at the children’s unsophisticated grasp of Middle Eastern politics. But accusing the Irish nation, and the rest of Europe, of anti-Semitism based on one encounter seems a bit of a stretch.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.