Since JC Conklin and I invested about a year of our lives interviewing women around the country for our book, Comeback Moms, which discusses how women can balance family and career, it was nice to see the comments of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg get some thoughtful attention in the media.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, Ms. Sandberg participated in a panel discussion called “Women in Economic Decision-Making” where she offered some clear headed advice about how women can progress in business (e.g., don’t be a wallflower) but also how honest conversations between employers and prospective female employees can result in better outcomes for women in business.
Specifically, she opined that some of the very laws and restrictions we’ve put into place in order to protect women from discrimination in the workplace have resulted in negative unintended consequences.
For example, it is considered taboo for an employer to ask a woman interviewee if she has or intends to have children someday. The thinking goes that if the woman answers in the affirmative that will count against her in pursuing the position. Ms. Sandberg suggests that by not addressing the issue, however, precisely the opposite happens. Instead of asking the question and resolving it one way or the other, employers tend to just assume that all women either have or intend to have children. By extension, they presume that hiring any woman could be costly to the company’s bottom line in terms of training and time off.
She suggests instead that they ask questions like “have you thought about having a family? Let’s talk about how you’re going to manage your career through your child-bearing years.”
This seems like a reasonable way to address the issue. It resolves two questions. First, it allows the woman the opportunity to clear the air with the prospective employer as to what her real intentions might be. It also allows her to clarify in her own mind what she really wants from work and family.
Before having children (or even marrying for that matter), many younger women presume that they’ll figure out the right balance when the time comes. What we found when writing Comeback Moms is that many women find the balancing act much tougher in fact than in theory. This is, in part, because as women, while we successfully found a way in the past few decades to seek equality in the workplace, we didn’t necessarily always see the same equality happening at home. To this day, responsibility for maintaining the household and handling issues with the kids fall more proportionately on the wife than the husband.
If we’re going to see more women achieve the level of accomplishment in the workplace that they desire, we need more common sense suggestions like Ms. Sandberg’s put into action.