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Sheryl Sandberg Is Right: Employers Should Know if You Plan to Get Pregnant

02/04/2013 11:03 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013
  • Gene Marks Small business management columnist, author, speaker, and business owner

It's 2013 and you know what? It still sucks to be a woman in the workplace. And if you want to be CEO of a large company? Good luck with that too.

Sure, things have improved. Just watch an episode of Mad Men and you'll see what our mothers and grandmothers had to deal with only a short time ago. Today, there's more equality in the workplace. There's less discrimination. There are way more women in upper management than ever before. Females now fight in the military and lead companies. But let's face it: women still have a long way to go if they're to be treated equally by men in the office.

And if you don't believe me just ask Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. She's been getting a ton of grief because she had the audacity to say that employers should be able to ask female employees if they plan to get pregnant. But... she's right! Or ask Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! who underwent unprecedented scrutiny when she got the job last year AND then announced she was pregnant to boot. How shocking! A smart, competent woman who also wants... to have a baby too? Imagine the number of investors who would've shorted Yahoo!'s stock if she had to miss a meeting because of menstrual cramps (a condition that legitimately affects millions of women).

Women like Sandberg and Mayer are different. They are anomalies.They are rare breeds.They are CEO's of big organizations. Most women wouldn't put up with this crap. Which is why there are only 21 women CEO's in the entire Fortune 500. It's not a matter of competency. It's a matter of attitudes. Even in 2013, society and the media still treat women much worse than men.

Who's fault is this? Men are certainly to blame. But... let's not let the women get off so easy. They're responsible too.

Look, most grown men are still 12-year-old boys inside. Most men still expect their working spouse to assume responsibility for the household chores. Most men turn immediately to their wives when their kid has the sniffles ("you don't expect ME to miss work, do you?"). Most men put a pillow over their heads when the baby starts crying at night, expecting mom (who has to also get up in the morning) to deal with the issue. Most men raise their eyebrows and give each other a nudge when a good-looking girl appears at a meeting. We check out the way they're dressed. We're shocked (still) when they make off-color jokes. Oh it's all fine for us... but my goodness, she seemed like such a nice girl! And most men still don't feel comfortable golfing and drinking with their female colleagues because we can't make jokes about sex and farting.

This is a fact. This is all happening. I know. I'm guilty of it. It's getting better. The younger guys are learning how to keep a straight face or to hold their comments. But the old school guys still have a way to go. And unfortunately, those are the guys still running many a company nowadays. And big cities too. Don't believe me? Ask New York's Mayor Bloomberg! Welcome to reality, ladies.

But before you nod in violent agreement please know: you've created this problem too. Because sometimes we are forced to discriminate, even when it goes against our business principles. That's what Sandberg is getting at. 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. Oh by the way, guys should face the same scrutiny about their "paternity" plans too.

But we're not allowed to ask these kinds of questions. And that just perpetuates the problem. Because if we can't even bring up this kind of legitimate business issue, then how can men and women ever work together on an equal level? And how can a woman succeed in the corporate world if she's made to tip-toe around issues like pregnancy? Women get pregnant! A few, like Sandberg and Mayer and Gutmann don't let this stop them from climbing the corporate ladder. But they are unique. So what do most women do? Most choose not to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It's because they're smarter than that.They choose other options.

Some stick with their jobs and rise to only a certain level in the typical male-dominated corporation. And they're OK with that. They don't want to be one of the boys. They accept the situation and choose not to let it bother them. They're above that. In exchange they (hopefully) have a good job with a good salary and benefits. They create time with their families and are comfortable with their lot in life. And good for them. Take a walk through any local company, from Comcast to Campbell Soup and you'll find lots of these women.

Other women chuck the corporate job and open up their own businesses. And why not? This way they can do their own thing on their own time and can have better control over when they have to deal with those old school guys. These are savvy women and I know many who work crazy hours and stress over their businesses and their family commitments. They're not running Fortune 500 companies, but they're not doing too bad either.

Most women aren't like Sandberg or Mayer. Most women will not become CEO's of Fortune 500 companies. The numbers already prove that. A significant reason why is that grown, responsible men are still adolescent boys at heart. But it's not all our fault. Because while we are still prohibited from asking reasonable questions like "do you plan to start a family anytime soon and what impact will that have on my business?" there will always be discrimination in the workplace. Can't we all do better than that?

A version of this essay appeared in The Philly Post.

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