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Sheryl Sandberg, Pregnancy, and Equal-Opportunity Squeamishness

Sheryl Sandberg says managers need to talk more openly about pregnancy. I want to believe her. I really do.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is successful, outspoken, smart as a whip, and works like heck. And she really, really cares about women and leadership. 

If those traits were more widely shared, maybe the advice she gave at a recent event wouldn’t seem so strange. But we’re not there yet.

Onstage at’s Dreamforce event last week San Francisco, Sandberg spoke about pregnancy and the glass ceiling. She noted that as managers, we don’t ask women about their plans to have families. We don’t dare, for fear of being accused of discrimination.

But talking about pregnancy, Sandberg points out, isn’t illegal. It's illegal to quiz employees about their plans to have children, and it's illegal to discriminate based upon pregnancy. And as managers and as an economy, we lose out on the talents of many women when they take jobs below their skill level or potential because of the fear that, should they become pregnant, they won’t be able to succeed as professionals and as parents at the same time. We need to support these women, says Sandberg, and that starts with honest conversation.

Sandberg offers a script for forward-thinking managers to use with their female staff:

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.

I love the idea behind this--that a manager wants to support a staffer no matter what turn her life takes, and that they’ll work together to make sure the employee doesn’t lose out if she becomes a mom.

But what employee in her right mind is going to have this conversation? She'd have to really trust her boss to make it work. Afterward, I can't help but think she'd wonder, every time she went to her boss's office, if her boss was scrutinizing her belly. And the employee would have to be comfortable talking about whether or not she wants to have children--a hugely personal, and often fraught, journey--with her boss.

It gets worse: What about the employee who tells her well-meaning boss that yes, she wants children, but then, for whatever reason, does not become a parent? Do most women want their bosses to know that much about their lives? Would most men?

That leads us to a rather elegant solution: If you're going to talk about families, and responsibility, and work-life balance, don’t just talk to women. Have this talk with everyone. 

Let everyone be equally uncomfortable, let everyone worry about their privacy, and let everyone squirm in their seats as they wonder how much they want to divulge to their boss. Then we'll make some progress.

Last updated: Nov 26, 2013

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.

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