Do You Talk To Your Boss About Your Pregnancy?
Why does it seem harder than ever to talk to the boss about juggling work with having a baby? Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In thinks she has the answer
When Lisa Hotchkiss found out she was pregnant last year, the 39-year-old financial adviser from upstate New York had a bad case of the butterflies when the time came to share the big news with her boss.
“I was petrified that my supervisor would view me as weak because of my pregnancy or not as committed to my job as I had been, even though I’d been with the company for 10 years,” Hotchkiss recalls. She was also concerned that her supervisor might ask her questions that she really didn’t have answers for at the time, including how long she planned to take off for her maternity leave or whether or not she planned to return to the company at all after having her baby.
“I went into that meeting prepared for some very personal questions,” says Hotchkiss.
But what ended up happening was the very opposite of personal.
“My supervisor was pleasant enough. He congratulated me and then hunted through his files looking for the handout on how to set up a maternity leave through Human Resources. That was it. He said congratulations one more time and the meeting was over.”
This meeting would set the tone for the remainder of her pregnancy.
“I had a performance review at seven months. It was positive, and I got a raise, but neither my pregnancy nor my maternity leave were mentioned. Because he didn’t bring it up, I didn’t either. When HR approved my request for a three-month maternity leave, I let him know. He just nodded and said thanks.”
On the one hand, Hotchkiss knew she had it good at her job, especially compared to the horror stories she’s heard of bosses firing pregnant employees over things like requesting time off to go to prenatal appointments. On the other hand, she found her supervisor’s unswerving neutrality to be completely unnerving.
“I was not discriminated against in the slightest, but my supervisor’s lack of acknowledgement that my life was changing felt incredibly very strange to me.”
It was strange to Hotchkiss, but this kind of behavior from upper management bosses has become all too common, according to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of Lean In, the groundbreaking book on women’s power in the workplace. In a speech before the Salesforce.com Dreamforce conference last month, Sandberg argued that well-intentioned pregnancy anti-discrimination policies and workplace privacy protections are unintentionally sabotaging women by taking the topic of career-family balance off the table.
She clarified her remarks in a phone interview with the Huffington Post,
“There are very good reasons why people don’t talk about [having kids] in the office … For too long women were afraid it would be held against them if they were pregnant or even thinking of having children—afraid that someone was going to write us off, or start giving the good projects to someone else.” And managers, she says, “didn’t want to be seen as holding this against women.” But the “unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions,” she says, are that “we don’t help women enough. We don’t acknowledge that this is complicated and help them plan for it.”
Hotchkiss says that Sandberg’s remarks finally put into words her “elephant in the room” experience.
“Before my pregnancy, my supervisor had frequently engaged me in discussions about where I saw my future with the company headed. Talking about anything remotely like this completely stopped once I told him I was pregnant. He was probably worried that anything he said could be construed as discriminatory. It’s too bad because I was feeling so uncertain about the future.”
BabyZone blogger Charity Curley Matthews recently wrote about her experience as a boss to pregnant women (before she had kids) and how her lack of initiative in discussing work-family balance was born out of her own cluelessness more than anything else.
Whatever the underlying reason, Sandberg says that staying silent on the topics of pregnancy, family, and kids is an open secret among many top-level supervisors.
“We know that we lose a lot of our high-earning women… during the childbearing years,” she told the audience at Salesforce.com conference. “What do we do about that? Nothing. When do we mention it? Never ever.”
How open are you with your boss about where you see your career headed once a baby is in the picture? Charity offers some great tips for how to confidently navigate your relationship with your boss during pregnancy—tips Hotchkiss wishes she had been privy to last year because once her baby was born, she quickly decided it was time for a career re-birth.
“As the end of my maternity leave neared, I couldn’t imagine being in a work environment where we couldn’t talk openly about juggling family and career or have discussions about creative job-sharing or telecommuting days. I needed something different.”
Instead of going back, Hotchkiss ended up finding a consultancy gig that has put her in the “boss” role.
And yes, she recently found out that one of the women she supervises is due to have her first child.
Hotchkiss admits, though, that she’s a far from neutral boss. “When she told me, the first thing I said to her was what I wish had been said to me, ‘Being a mom is going to change your life, so tell me how we can help make the work part of your life keep working.’”
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