The taboo question you should be asking female employees

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It’s assumed that if a company asks about a woman’s intention to start a family that the managers are looking for ways to discriminate. But what if asking that question would help your employees’ long term career plans?

That’s the suggestion from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, they were doing young women a disservice by not helping them plan for career breaks.

“We know the childbearing years are a challenge for women, [for companies] to keep them, we know that,” Sandberg, 43, said. “But how are we going to get women through that frame if we can’t have that conversation?”

She suggested that rather than seeing maternity leave as an unavoidable inconvenience, a more open communication could help both company and employee through better planning and preparation.

Sandberg said women make decisions early in their careers based on the stereotypes and low expectations placed on them by society.

“Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, ‘I’ll take a slightly less interesting speciality because I’m going to want more balance one day,’” she said.

“Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back [from their careers]. The problem is, often they don’t even realise it.”

Sandberg herself is a mother of two who is Facebook’s best-paid executive. While she may not stop working, she famously leaves the office at 5:30pm every day.

“I think we need to understand that the stereotypes that start in childhood hold us back in the professional world, and start having a much more open conversation,” she said in Davos. “Think of it like a marathon. Everyone’s cheering the men on. The messages for women are different: are you sure you want to run, don’t you want to run, don’t you have kids at home? We have to talk about this.”

  • Richard on 14/02/2013 8:38:06 AM

    You could try - "do you have any plans that will require extended leave over the next 5 years? " Ask both sexes, there is more than one reason for taking leave. Also not all males earn more than their partners, so may become carers.

  • Bruce Finch on 13/02/2013 11:00:05 AM

    So what is the question we should be asking female employees without getting into trouble?

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