Sheryl Sandberg wants to take the taboo out of a working woman’s pregnancy by getting it all out on the table. At her Facebook post she regularly speaks with female employees and candidates about their pregnancy plans. Her sample script goes like this:
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.
Oh boy. Could any issue be more fraught with complications and potential for damage?
As a surface issue, getting human resources and labor lawyers comfortable with this practice is going to take some finesse. It is illegal to discriminate against a pregnant woman and, hand-in-hand, it is common to avoid any questions about future baby plans. However I’m with the employment lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who have weighed in on the subject — essentially saying that the laws are on the books to prevent discrimination, but if the intentions are pure, the concern about saying the wrong thing shouldn’t deter managers from doing the right thing.
The deeper issue for me, isn’t a concern of running amok of the anti-discrimination laws. It’s a matter of unrealistic expectations — on the part of the employer and the employee. The simple fact of having children and having a career is there is absolutely no way to know how each parent is going to feel about it until they experience it for themselves. Talking about logistics beforehand might help a woman ease her nerves in getting pregnant while growing her career or telling her boss she’s pregnant, but there’s not a whole lot that can really be accomplished by this conversation. And there’s a lot of potential for damage.
I’d venture to say that most working women, especially those professional women working at the higher levels of management, intend to come back to work. They probably believe they can take as little maternity leave as possible and come back swinging to show everyone they haven’t lost their edge after baby. Or maybe they have the option to take six months and they use that whole time to bond with baby and come back ready to pick up right where they left off. But some of them feel differently when they actually experience being home with their child. Some of them can’t imagine leaving their tiny babies with someone else. Some of them have the luxury to choose and they are going to resent going back because of a heartfelt and sincere conversation they had when their child was still just an idea. Of course, there are some that are eager to go back but don’t realize the toll it will take until they are pulling over on the side of the road to have a nervous break-down a la Katrina Alcorn.
I’m all for more transparency around kids and career and would champion anything that supports a work-life balance culture, but I just can’t see how an idealistic hypothetical pre-pregnancy conversation changes any of these scenarios.