Last week, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg held that companies should be able to ask women about their plans for starting a family, according to The Telegraph.
She meant to articulate that women are held back in the workplace by stereotypes that most firms aren’t willing to talk about — her aim, therefore, was to call for a more open and accepting dialogue about gender, one that includes discussing with female employees or potential employees whether they plan to have children, reported The Telegraph. As of yet, employers are not allowed to pose this question. Her remarks have been met with controversy. However, Huffington Post business columnist Gene Marks responded to the issue positively: “I am not embarrassed to say that when I interview a young woman my first thought is ‘what happens when/if she gets pregnant?’ This is a legitimate business question. Right or wrong, the fact is that men delegate mothering to women. And most women (thank God) want that job too — it’s natural. So, am I wrong to ask if that smart young lady who I’m about to invest in plans to start a family anytime soon and whether she will actually come back to work in six weeks after she gives birth? Or ever? I need to make plans otherwise. Allow me to ask that question,” he wrote on Monday.
Marks raises a legitimate point, but the question is still entirely unfair. Asking women about their plans to have children is both a breach in privacy and a form of gender discrimination. For one, plans for pregnancy are a woman’s business. She should not have to share them with her employer. Moreover, pregnancies can be accidental — should it only be females who suffer the consequences of this fact? Being asked about plans for a family thus effectively urges women to ease back in their career ambitions and instead consider the burdens of child rearing. It discourages them from fighting to achieve both a career and raise a family. It stigmatizes the natural wish to have a baby. It segregates women in the workplace for wanting to do so, because it is possible to have it all. CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer underwent unprecedented scrutiny when she was appointed to the position last year and announced soon after that she was also pregnant.
Having children, of course, can prevent a woman from progressing in her field. And it is true that pregnancy can affect a woman’s job performance — more or less so depending on the job. (Jobs that demand physical labor, for example, could potentially be dangerous and ultimately involve companies in legal battles they would understandably rather enjoy.) But more often than not, pregnancy should not be an issue when hiring.
If pregnancy is a serious consideration, employers should refrain from employing females. And if they do so, they will have reverted to the worst sort of gender discrimination. The question is particularly unfair because men are never asked this question — not even if they plan to become fathers.