• Mon, Dec 2 - 10:00 am ET

Sheryl Sandberg Wants Your Boss To Lean In To Your Uterus By Discussing Your Pregnancy Plans

shutterstock_145266931Sheryl 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.

(photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

You can reach this post's author, Carinn Jade, on twitter.
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  • Heather

    I guess if your opinion is that it doesn’t matter, why did you write an article about it?

    • rrlo

      Maybe Carinn wanted to start a discussion? Must we always know with absolutely certainty which way our opinions lean?

    • Heather

      Well, I know that the idea of writing within this organization is that you’re supposed to present a strong opinion of the material. Simply stating that the conversation doesn’t matter isn’t a very strong opinion. Kinda boring post where nothing much was communicated and she didn’t even make me care about the content, because she said herself doesn’t think it matters.

    • Carinn Jade

      Because I believe hope and concern can coexist.

  • EX

    “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”

    But maybe it’s a start? It would have meant a lot to me if I had gotten this kind of talk instead of the “golly gee we wish you weren’t having a kid because it’s a total pain in our ass” talk. OK, no one said that last part to me, but it was implied. And I have had people say they wished I wasn’t having a baby or that it was bad timing or whatever. It really pisses me off. Especially because, after having had a miscarriage having someone say they wish I wasn’t pregnant is like a slap in the face. I know they don’t mean it that way, but it sucks.

    • Carinn Jade

      That experience sounds completely awful – I’m sorry. Though you tap on exactly my concern. If business is worried about the bottom line, pregnancy (or taking time off for a baby) is always going to be inconvenient. I worry that what most people will hear is “how can I help you get this baby thing over as fast as possible and get you back to work?” I think that’s why most women are afraid to tell their bosses when they are pregnant. But ultimately I am with you. I hope it’s a start — in changing the attitudes about work and family.

    • EX

      The weird thing is, people (my boss included) say these kind of things and mean it as a compliment: ‘you are so important to this place we can’t function without you for ~2 months.’ I don’t think they realize that it is not taken that way. At all.

    • rrlo

      I read “Lean In” and one of the hypothesis in that book was that many women assume that their company will penalize them for having kids and make decisions based on that assumption, rather than getting the true story. For example, some ladies purposely pass on a lucrative projects because they are trying to have a baby (not even pregnant) yet. So Sandberg is trying to encourage open dialogue – especially from the employer’s side.

      I disagree that depending on the company and the woman’s personal life having a baby must always be disruptive and inconvenient. In many cases, an early discussion may open up opportunities and solutions that was not obvious to the employee.

      For those women who want to continue to work and have a certain type of career after baby – open dialogue may be a good thing.

  • Carolina

    This seems like the wrong way to change the culture. I’ve been an attorney for ten years, and I have never, ever had a boss with whom this would have been a comfortable conversation. Further, it’s fine and good to say “we value all parents and want to integrate new parents back into the company” but actions speak louder than words. At my old firm, it was very apparent what happened to most new mothers, and it was not our fault. Having someone ask about my childbearing plans wouldn’t have fixed it.

  • TwentiSomething Mom

    Your title seems as if she is trying to be intrusive and demand answers. I think what she is suggesting is for employers to keep lines of communication open and to let their employees know they have options and they can be discussed beforehand. Sure, not everyone knows how they’ll feel until after they have a baby but not everyone has a choice. With all of the changes and adjustments that need to be made to prepare for a baby during pregnancy, its nice to know that there are employers out there that will be willing to work with you in a way that benefits all parties involved.

    • Carinn Jade

      I don’t know. Your boss isn’t your best friend. I can guess this might be easier to hear coming from a woman, but a 50-something man? Do I really think he wants to chat about my hypothetical plans to have a family? I didn’t even discuss those things with my friends or parents. I think that has the potential to come off as really intrusive.

    • Milly

      I think that is a valid point. My boss is a 30 year old woman and we’ve openly discussed my future plans with school and children so that we both know where we stand as it is a smaller office. I’d have a hard time imagining this conversation with a gruff old guy however I’ve had some former male bosses who I think could handle it too. Really depends on both parties involved.

  • Kay_Sue

    How, exactly, do we identify who the women are that need these conversations?

    “Hey, you, you look like you might want to have a baby someday–let’s talk about it,” just isn’t an employer’s place. Should women that are childfree by choice have to explain themselves and their decision? They may not want to make that information common knowledge, as they already deal with a lot of flak just by deciding not to have kids to begin with.

    What about a woman that is infertile? She can’t conceive, does she explain that to her boss? How does she say that– “Hey, look, I can’t have kids, so you don’t have to worry about it. It’s heartbreaking for me, personally, and potentially a strain on my mental and emotional health, but it’s cool because you don’t have worry about ever arranging maternity leave for me or anything like that.” If she plans on adopting at some point, or using a surrogate, does she discuss those plans with her boss, also?

    Transparency is important, yes, but so is privacy. A good boss is going to make you feel like you can come to them, without any hesitation, regardless. I was not working during my first pregnancy, but I did during my second. My boss never said, “Hey, listen, if you want to get knocked up, or if you do get knocked up, you can talk to me.” He said, “You can always talk to me about anything. We all have families, and I understand. I want to work with you and give you the best work/life balance I can so that you can do your job to your best abilities.” So when I was expecting, it was easy to go to him–he was one of the first people I told–because I already knew the door was open, even if we had never specifically talked about it.

    I honestly think that’s a better way of handling it than reducing every woman that walks into your workplace to a walking uterus that may potentially bring forth screaming alien-shaped beings.

    • Kate

      He said, “You can always talk to me about anything. We all have families, and I understand. I want to work with you and give you the best work/life balance I can so that you can do your job to your best abilities.”

      That’s great. I wish my boss was so articulate and easy to talk to.

    • Kay_Sue

      He is one of a kind. That’s the truth. It is rare to meet someone that cared about their employees on the level that he did (and still does).

    • E-Marie

      I agree – transparency and preparation are very important, but singling women out for awkward conversations is not always helpful. I like what your boss said, and I would hope that’s what EVERY boss would say to ALL of their employees. It’s not always about pregnancy – someone might need to take care of a sick relative, someone’s spouse may get laid off, or even something as simple as a carpool or transportation situation has changed because of a broken car. These are things that can affect anyone!

      On a side note, I had tons of pre-pregnancy discussions with my boss, but that’s because I work at a church and he’s also my pastor. He was invaluable while we struggled with miscarriage and infertility, and I think he knew I was pregnant before we called my parents! :) But I know not everyone is so lucky.

    • Kay_Sue

      Exactly. He had the conversation with every staff member, and he followed through too. One of my co-workers lost her brother and sister-in-law in a car accident. She became sole guardian of their small children–despite being a grandmother herself. He worked with her through the transition, which was huge for their family. Another had marital issues with his wife–boss worked his schedule around Counseling and everything else. Conversations are across the board, and it freed up everyone, from the single college students needing to work around school to those of us with families, to come to him. It made a better workplace overall.

    • rrlo

      As I said before, having read “Lean In” and following Sandberg’s other public appearances (e.g. TED talk etc.) – she is really trying to identify and remove barriers to women achieving their professional goals. It is not about discussing fertility and uterus – that would be insane. But about having a realistic conversation about personal life and career. And reassuring those ladies who are looking to get pregnant that the company won’t penalize them for those choices. I think what your boss did makes perfect sense – and well within the spirit of what Sandberg was saying.

    • Kay_Sue

      Having also read “Lean In” and fully aware that the conversation above falls in that philosophical realm, I still do not believe that these are conversations that should be initiated by an employer. Women in situations similar to what I mentioned above will feel alienated or cornered, and that is the opposite of what a good manager wants.

      Pregnancy, fertility and childbearing are too personal for an employer-initiated, topic specific conversation. Instead of this specific approach, a better one is a general conversation that is held regardless of gender (men participate in baby making, family planning and child rearing too) and fostering an overall environment so that if a specific employee has questions or concerns about their work/life balance, they know they can come to you, instead of singling out women who look to be of the right childbearing age.

  • iamtheshoshie

    In my field, which is traditionally male dominated but is becoming increasingly balanced, people just don’t talk about pregnancy. It’s this super taboo subject and that basically results in people thinking you should just not get pregnant if you want to stay in the field. Or you shouldn’t get pregnant until you’re really well established, which can take a long time and then you’re really effed if you are predisposed to fertility problems or want more than one kid. I’m not sure this is the best way to go about it, but I think starting the conversation is a really good step in the right direction.

  • Coby

    I got the be the guinea pig at my company – I was the first woman to take maternity leave in approximately 10 years. I had everything mapped out – prepared a work distribution memo, trained up the necessary people to take over for me while I was out, set the calendar for my return to work – and then came the crashing reality of returning to work. And it did not go as well as I had planned.

    I think the conversation needs to be had. From my experience, I needed my boss to “lean in” so he could be on board with my career and choices. For a variety of reasons, it just didn’t happen and me working became the elephant in the room. We knew there were problems, but I don’t think my boss wanted to broach the subject and I was 100% not in an emotional state to even pay attention.

    I don’t read it as fraught with danger or damage; I read it as getting those in management positions to the table to be on-board with those who wish to grow their families.

  • Emily

    I dunno, I think it’s nice to leave the door open to discuss different options, especially if you build in some flexibility with your plans. I decided to tell my boss that we’re trying to conceive because it involves medical intervention and I have to be out of the office fairly routinely. She’s been great about respecting my privacy but leaving the door open to discuss things and letting me know that she’ll do whatever she can to make my job work for me. It definitely took a weight off my shoulders.

  • martha

    I’m a blue collar worker at a very small family business. My boss and I DID have a conversation (a few, actually) well before I got pregnant. Just casually, in the course of talking about life. I let him know I wanted kids, I didn’t want to leave him in a bind or waste the time he spent training me, but that I wouldn’t put my kid in FT daycare. He let me know that he wanted to keep me even if he had to work around a family schedule. We continued to discuss this as I worked through my pregnancy, took 6 weeks leave, and came back at part-time. So far so good, I have 1 kid and planning another, and I’m still working 20hrs a week. Being up-front but casual really helped me keep it from being a big deal and helped me keep my job.

  • Insidious_Sid

    I don’t even have a uterus and I’d tell the boss last and have at least two other options to fall back on. Mind you, I don’t take the brutal nature of the corporate world personally… It’s called “human resources” not “human resources and family planning”. A lot of people, especially women, are fighting for great things when it comes to family / work life balance. And that’s great. But we’re still “resources” first and “human” a close second… if we’re lucky.