This focus on the female reproductive system can be a real conversation stopper if you manage to bring it into everyday small talk. Admittedly, it’s not that easy. For example, when speaking about the weather, it may be challenging to add:
“Yes, it’s quite cold outside, but my womb is adapting to the drop in temperature just fine, thank you for asking.”
While that specific exchange seems unlikely to ever happen, it’s surprising how much we as a community think about what’s happening in a woman’s uterus. Focusing on your own reproduction makes sense. What troubles me is when the business community wants to talk about it, too. In fact, it seems impossible to talk about the advancement of women in business without someone dropping the word “baby” into the equation. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s high time companies take their eyes off our navels.
Which is why I found Sheryl Sandberg’s suggestion at the World Economic Forum in Davos so disappointing. Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook and unofficial figurehead for many women in business suggested that companies should ask women directly about their family plans. Since companies are naturally self-interested, how in the world does she imagine that this is a good idea?
Research consistently shows that even women who take little or no time out of their careers for children encounter “maternal wall bias,” where they are viewed as less capable. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, mothers are 50 percent less likely to be promoted compared to childless women and will see their salary reduced by $11,000.
Ms. Sandberg’s remark underscores her failure to understand the discrimination to which a woman may be subjected, observed Natalie MacDonald, a partner at Grosman, Grosman & Gale and author of the book Extraordinary Damages in Canadian Employment Law.
“Disclosure of a woman’s plan to have children at any time throughout the employment relationship, either during the hiring process or thereafter, could enable the employer to discriminate against her, by either terminating her employment, or treating her differently, both of which could have significantly negative repercussions for the woman,” explained Ms. MacDonald.
The inference of Sheryl Sandberg’s statement also appears simplistic. Will companies only ask married, straight women? Will they also ask potential employees if they plan on caring for aging parents or sick partners? What repercussions will exist if an employee decides to change her mind?
Each time business leaders focus on how reproduction impacts our work, the less seriously we are taken.
While business leaders focus on babies and their impact on productivity, governments wring their hands when we decide not to have children. Falling birthrates negatively impact a country’s economy since “today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers,” as one New York Times columnist astutely observed.
Not everyone views this trend toward fewer children as carrying dire economic results. In fact, Paul Ehrlich, the Bing professor of population studies at Stanford University argues falling birthrates in the developing world is “the best possible news.”
“Babies in the developing world grow up to become super consumers,” observed Mr. Ehrlich, who argues in an article written with his wife Anne that overconsumption by the rich along with overpopulation carries devastating results.
The solution, according to the Ehrlichs, comes down to granting women access to education, job opportunities, modern contraception and back-up abortions when that fails. That gives countries the opportunity to take full advance of women’s brains.
Yet, we continue to find it challenging to separate the decisions of educated, professional women and what society expects their uterus to do.
Even Ann-Marie Slaughter, the doyenne of the movement “Women Can’t Have it All,” recently wrote about the trend of Wharton graduates who appear considerably less likely to have children than they did 20 years ago. Ms. Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, counsels graduates to reconsider this decision not to have children and suggests society must “redefine” success. I tend to agree, so long as “redefining success” is not code that mothers should be content with an average job.
Yes, women ultimately bear children but they have been doing so since the dawn of time. We also need to stop seeing women as both baby factories that generate our future workforce and simultaneously keep us out of the C-suite.
For the record, I love my children but I’m more than just a uterus and the sooner that more people understand that, the quicker we can all get down to business.