The taboo question you should be asking female employees

by |

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 unconvenience, 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 has 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 realize 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.”

Would you every ask an employee about their plans to have children?


  • Anna Lee Harris on 2013-02-11 11:40:53 AM

    I understand where she's coming from, and I like the sentiment that I could plan my career path around family plans with positive input from my managers. However, how would this ever work in the real world? As soon as my manager brought it up I would think he wanted to know whether it was worth promoting me. It would take a lot of trust (or naivete) to talk about it candidly.
    As a recruiter I would never ask, but I have mentored women (not at my own org) through planning for maternity breaks.

  • Mark Perrault on 2013-02-11 12:00:50 PM

    Unfortunately, 10% of hires are failures so you would be taking a huge risk by asking that question, and later needing to terminate that employee. I always assume that employees will have family issues whether its mat leave, illness or elder care. But over the course of 20 years it really doesn't impact the organization. Some of our best employees started out filling a parental leave.
    Always hire the best employee (one of my best hires was visibly pregnant)and bend over backwards to accomondate them. The organization will benefit in the long run.

  • Linda on 2013-03-27 2:55:21 PM

    I understand where Sheryl is coming from. However our world is not set up to be able to pose this question without coming across as discriminatory. Not all leaders think the way Sheryl does. The reality is that most top leaders would want to avoid hiring someone who is planning to have a family in the near future, hence asking the question would be complicated. Before we start asking this question, leaders need to be educated or open their mind to new possibilities. More work needs to be done to prevent decisions to be made that could be described as descriminatory. In Canada, if we ask this question to women we should be prepared to ask the question to men if they are planning to start a family as well as they can now apply for parental leave as well.

  • Jeannie McQuaid on 2014-01-02 5:32:07 AM

    Does someone need to explain the difference between "taboo" and "Charter Right violation"? For every employer who would ask such a question for supportive, good faith reasons, there are 10 who would be asking to hedge their bets against potential future "inconveniences" of motherhood.

  • Laura on 2014-01-02 7:53:10 AM

    The flipside to this is the negative stigma that comes with not wanting a family, or the personal issues that a woman may face in trying to conceive. One cannot simply presume that every woman wants or can have children. I for one, am quite content with my husband and our dogs, but in my prime child bearing years (30) it is always, (always!) presumed that because I am a woman, I must have this raging, maternal instinct-driven madness that makes me melt at the sight of a newborn, sending my uterus into a grumbling state of alarm, not unlike the protest of an empty stomach!
    No! No, I am sorry, this does not happen to all women, believe it or not!
    So, MY concern is for how others view me when I say "No, I don't want to have children."
    What kind of message does this send to you? Is that to my benefit or could it also been seen as detriment? Don't you want to know why a young woman does not want a family? What's wrong with her, you might think.
    My point is that this question is a double-edged sword and like others have noted, it has poor "real world" transferability.

  • Maxine on 2014-01-06 5:38:04 AM

    I read her book and the scenario was a bit different: she had just interviewed a young lady and the interview whent amazingly. At the end the young lady seemed to be holding herself back. So Sheryl asked her if she was holding herself back because she was thinking of having kids some day. The woman replied yes and Sheryl encouraged her to take the position anyway for various reasons. So its not like it was an interview question "are you planning on having kids" that would NOT ever work for the reasons some of you mentioned.

HRM Online forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions