Should employers be able to ask women if they plan to get pregnant?

One of readers asked on Friday to discuss Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s comment that employers should be able to ask women if they plan to get pregnant — even though it is illegal.

From The Grindstone: (I don’t know anything about this site but it was the only place I could find the original article.)

“There aren’t many women who attend the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, but those who do sure know how to make waves. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told an audience this weekend that she believes employers should be able to speak freely with female employees about whether they plan to get pregnant. The question is considered taboo by HR departments (not to mention feminists) because it’s illegal (not to mention slimy) to discriminate against a job candidate or employee based on pregnancy status. Why is Sandberg, one of the top women in male-dominated Silicon Valley, in favor of changing the system?

“Sandberg wants a “much more open dialogue about gender” because women are held back professionally by stereotypes no one feels comfortable talking about. “Every HR department tells you not to do that,” she said, referring to discussing employees’ plans to start families, “but we need to have a much more open conversation.”

“ ‘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.’ ”

I found this on another website and they are examples of questions that are currently illegal to ask women in interviews.


“Illegal Interview Questions to Avoid

It’s not that women have an unfair advantage over men during the interview process, yet some federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking certain questions that primarily relate to women.

Examples of questions that may discriminate include:

  • Do you have any children? If so, how many and what are their ages?
  • Are you single, married, divorced, or engaged?
  • What kind of childcare arrangements do you have in place?
  • Are you currently taking any form of birth control or fertility treatment?
  • What are your plans if you get pregnant?
  • Does your spouse work? If so, what does your spouse do for a living?
  • Should we refer to you as Mr., Miss, or Mrs.?”

So the reader asks: “Should employers be able to ask female employees about their family planning?”

71 comments Add your comment

A Realist

February 11th, 2013
5:42 am

Absolutely not. It will have no bearing on if they can do their job. It’s the same as if an employee plans to be out longterm for medical reasons or for military deployment. An effective manager will let the employee bring this to management’s attention and then plan accordingly.


February 11th, 2013
6:45 am

No! This question sets women back. Maternity leave is a fact of life.


February 11th, 2013
7:03 am

Some of the younger readers won’t remember this, but in 1973 my husband and I were looking to buy a house. We were asked, as part of the loan interview, what kind of birth control we used!

Also, girls were not allowed to play LL ball, they were not allowed in quite a few private universities (Duke, for example, except in nursing, Sewanee), and a host of other activities we take for granted were barred to them.

Not one step back.


February 11th, 2013
7:28 am

The hell???? When you are married and of child bearing age, they are ALREADY looking at you with narrowed eyes trying to figure out if you will get pregnant. If they were able to ask it, no woman under 40 will ever get a job!


February 11th, 2013
8:18 am

It is illegal, so whatever someone thinks they should be able to do is irrelevant. People have a right to a life outside of work. If an employer is expecting employees to live the job, they should tell the potential employee that little bit of information. I bet they’ll have a tough time filling the position. With this kind of thinking, women would not be able to work until they turned 50! It’s sad that a woman brought it up. She really does need to get a life!


February 11th, 2013
8:23 am

She’s right about the need for more honest communication, so that we can learn to accept each other better. But she’s wrong because women should never be defined by the choice to have children. It’s actually un-plannable, since “planning” to have children rarely works out the way you plan.

All I'm Saying Is....

February 11th, 2013
8:47 am

This question is irrelevant. The interview is about my qualifications for the job and then trying to figure out if, with my qualifications, I can do the job.

Shameful and an indication of both her degree of ignorance about history and the perception that some members of the Facebook generation have with respect to putting everything out in the open that Sandberg would say such a thing. And she is female to boot. Would have loved to have heard the outcry if Jack Welch had said this. I’ll bet Mark Zuckerberg was not even dumb enough to have asked her that question when she was trying to get a job with Facebook.

As a man and someone who was once newly married, I would not have wanted an employer to have had the right to ask me anything about my personal life with respect to when were we going to start a family and what child care arrangements were we going to make. And these days, more and more women are outearning their spouse making it increasingly likely the spouse will soon be the one having to decide if they should stay home to raise the kids which means more men potentially facing these types of questions that are irrelevant.

Road Scholar

February 11th, 2013
8:56 am

He!! no! Can you ask the interviewer ” Are you really that stupid?” or “Does that violate Federal law and good manners?”, but you probably won’t get the job!

Decatur Guy

February 11th, 2013
9:04 am

“Should employers be able to ask women if they plan to get pregnant?”

It’s illegal.

Decatur Guy

February 11th, 2013
9:06 am

“One of readers asked on Friday to discuss Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s comment that employers should be able to ask women if they plan to get pregnant — even though it is illegal.”

The last five words of that comment puts the whole thing to rest. It is illegal to ask that question just like it is illegal to fire a woman when she is pregnant. If the b!tch at Facebook asks such a question then she should be sued.

Decatur Guy

February 11th, 2013
9:07 am

At the end of the day, a job will not be there to love you back.


February 11th, 2013
9:10 am

YES DB and I made it back from Chicago safely and we had fun. Even walked a mile downtown, in the cold, to our restaurant….brrr!

No, I do not think this question is appropriate. Are there not other unpredictable things that could keep you away from your desk, so to speak? I met someone whose wife was in an auto accident and away from her job for 3 months. They promised her the job would still be there. It was not, for her.

@ M.E. some of us can plan. I have a boy and a girl and both were born right after I finished teaching in May and June.


February 11th, 2013
9:27 am

Why don’t they ask men that same question?


February 11th, 2013
9:36 am

That’s kind of why most companies that offer health care plans or maternity leave or any company funded assistance don’t let that kick in until at least a year of employment, sometimes longer. It’s a way to protect the company from someone who planned (as well as one can plan it) to have a baby (or a surgery or other procedure) and tried to do it on the companies dime. Obviously people get pregnant without planning for it or require a hospital stay for many unplanned reasons, but there are systems in place to protect a applicant’s dignity, as well as the company who’s deciding to invest in them.


February 11th, 2013
9:54 am

When my mother and father were building a home in the 60’s, my mother — who was a teacher for over 35 years — was highly annoyed that her income would not be considered in the determination of how much of a loan they would be granted, “because there was always the chance she would quit work to have more children.”

Would they ask a man about his family planning? Can you imagine the look of outrage if they asked a man, “Do you use a condom whenever you have sex?” Women have babies. Get over it.


February 11th, 2013
10:28 am

It is illegal, as it should be, and I don’t foresee it ever being legal. It is not an appropriate question regardless of any argument to the contrary.


February 11th, 2013
10:29 am

What is this, the early 1900s before women had the right to vote? Not it’s not OK to ask any employee or prospective employee about their reproductive health.

Rick James

February 11th, 2013
10:30 am

When it comes to dollars and cents, it makes sense for employers, especially small businesses which may be operating on a very thin profit margins, to want to know whether their new hires are going to be out for many weeks. Regardless of their skills, a highly qualified individual at home for a few months could be complete detrimental to a business. Asking the questions listed above may be illegal, but it doesn’t change the issues at hand.


February 11th, 2013
10:41 am

In the larger sense, I understand where Sandberg is trying to get the world to go. I agree strictly disqualifing a female candidate “because they might get pregant” is wrong Take the emotions out for a minute and consider things like– a small company has 4 workers. Would you risk the entire operation if you knew all 4 females you hired planned on starting families in the next 12 months possible putting all 5 of you out of work? Would you have considered hiring a male or 2 for balance so that when the time for maternity leave comes, you have some flexability?. It’s not always just about qualifications, long term stability and flexability can come into play for smaller companies. There has to be a place we can get to that doesn’t discriminate but can provide for meaning input for future planning that helps everyone. Refusing to have the dialogue is the best way to insure employers cover their bases by simply excluding female candidates.


February 11th, 2013
11:21 am

Actually, no, xxx, it is a way for an employer to get a major lawsuit.


February 11th, 2013
11:27 am

XXX, you just cited the reasons why it is illegal to ask these questions. If you think a small business owner should hire a couple of males, just to cover his bases, what makes you think he wouldn’t hire all males. I am appalled that this supposedly intelligent woman would think this is a good idea. Besides, males as well as females leave the job for military duty, other illnesses, family leave, etc. Why not ask a man if he plans to have any kind of surgery or decides to go hunting or is going to call in sick because he wants a day off? I come from a time when women where could not have certain jobs (nurse, secretary, and teacher were the only acceptable areas for female employment, well, maybe a sales job in retail) and let me tell you I damn sure don’t want to go back. I fought too long and too hard to overcome this kind of attitude.


February 11th, 2013
11:28 am


A business owner or manager must make decisions on things that directly affect the viability of their business! And, if an employee has plans that will directly affect their ability to perform their job, be at that job on a regular schedule, not have an inordinate amount being absent-paid or not-, or to be out for periods of time up to 3 or 4 months or longer for the birth of a child, THAT IS VITAL TO KNOW, ESPECIALLY IN A SMALL BUSINESS! And all these things go into pay amounts! Most of the “women are paid less” agenda relates to the above, not that they are actually paid less for the same work! Yes women have issues that men do not, and, birth of a child is a main one! But a business should not be penalized or discriminated against for insuring the survival and profitability of their business!


K's Mom

February 11th, 2013
11:34 am

I had a boss ask me my family plans about 3 weeks after I married. I was so shocked, I think I answered her. I am shocked that the current class of female executives is hell bent on setting women back. First the Yahoo CEO only takes two weeks of maternity leave, now this. The Yahoo CEO has the means to hire baby nurses and to work from home (she is the boss). Not many women have those options. This female executive also has the means to do the same things.

I get the small company angle, but small companies are not required to abide by the family medical leave act so it is a moot point. If you are a woman and choose to work for a small company with no paid maternity leave that is your choice and you have to work that out, but the company should not be able to make a hiring decision based on your family plans.

I was on bedrest for 7.5 months in my first pregnancy and I lost my job over it. I would not trade my son for the job by any means, but I was fortunate to have an employed husband and be able to make ends meet. Since the birth of my first child, I have been able to work part time and it is still challenging to juggle child care. Since I have the luxury of working part time and still experience work/life balance issues, I truly feel for women who have to work full time and get backlash for it.

In some ways I feel like women will never be able to win for losing on this one.


February 11th, 2013
11:49 am

No. I wonder if “said employer” would like to answer that question.


February 11th, 2013
12:08 pm

Other questions to consider for the small business owner to ask prospective female employees:

1) do you plan on contracting a major illness that will require you to take a leave of absense?

2) Do you plan on getting the flu and being out for over a week?

3) Do you plan on taking vacation time?

4) Is your husband financially stable? Do you really have to work, or do you just want to get out of the house and away from the kids.

5) Do you plan for any of your children to get sick?

6) do you have a place to drop of said sick child so you don’t miss any work.

7) do you plan any major automobile accidents that will require a lengthy hospital stay?

8) How old are your parents?

9) Will they need more of your time to care for them than this job?

10) Will you wear skirts and not pants?

This is just beyond stupid!!!


February 11th, 2013
12:20 pm

Why even bother asking about pregnancy when there are so many legitimate reasons to not hire a woman?


February 11th, 2013
12:31 pm

It’s like any other situation the company may care about. “Do you plan to (insert activity here which will likely result in a large insurance payout and you missing up to 3 months of work)?”


February 11th, 2013
12:33 pm

@Jarvis – name 5…

Un-asked questions

February 11th, 2013
12:37 pm

Whether they ask or they don’t ask the questions are going through their mind and it is influencing their hiring decisions (whether the interviewer is male or female). Taking time off to have a child, care for a child, having work interruptions because of a child, etc. are ALL realities. Some of those same care requirements apply to men as well but the statistics are what employers are basing their thoughts on. It will influence a decision and no law will change that.

The same applies to disabled folks. In fact, the ADA actually made things a lot worse. Congress passed that law and now an employer has no ability to try and solve issues on their own with a disabled employee. There are enormous mandates and significant costs many of which might not be required for the particular disability involved. To solve the problem, employers steer clear of anyone who might put them in the situation. Statistics don’t lie. Employment among the disabled is way down since the passage of ADA. Employment among the least qualified employees goes down every time the minimum wage is raised. There should be no surprise in this. Government mandates only make things worse.

Before women start wanting more and more protection because of the realities of childbirth that come with being female, they should look around and see all the other “protected” groups and how much more they are impacted by the presence of so-called “protections” before they demand any more.

Un-asked questions

February 11th, 2013
12:41 pm

Keep in mind, the larger the company the more they are able to “absorb” these costs. The significant negative impact comes to those small employers who are barely making it as it is. Again, who can blame anyone for making business decisions that serve to keep them in business (regardless of how upset that might make you)? It isn’t YOUR business so what right do you have to dictate how it is run???

Stalin's Ghost

February 11th, 2013
12:45 pm

I get the concept, which is a concern about losing a valued employee you’ve invested time and money into. and unlike most diseases, pregnancy is somewhat predictable. most especially in the military where other people’s lives literally depend on her and her training.

but…..still dumb, still wrong.


February 11th, 2013
12:46 pm

Let’s ask all male job candidates if they plan to impregnate their wife or girlfriend during their tenure with the company.

Stalin's Ghost

February 11th, 2013
12:49 pm

@ mayhem

may I try?

1-she might be smarter
2-she might work harder
3-she might be better educated
4-she might have more ethics
5-she has boobs. I won’t be able to think.

Stalin's Ghost

February 11th, 2013
12:54 pm

it may be fair, it may be unfair.
but it IS.

employers need to deal with reality.

I agree there needs to be some serious discussion on how this impacts business, and to find some kind of middle ground which works for both parties


February 11th, 2013
1:11 pm

catlady, i see the entire premise for this discussion has gone over your head. The original discussion was Sandberg’s idea of allowing these questions to be asked legally- therefore the whole “its illegal this” and “lawsiut that” hysteria is rendered moot. I think her idea was to move the discussion to a higher level so that the benefit is for all rather than it being about a single woman and a single job. Isn’t tht the same idea behind the current administration’s assault on the wealthy? You know, the money should be used for the greater good? Funny how when it you being affected a person’s opioin changes drastically.


February 11th, 2013
1:16 pm

Ha. Wait until you are a woman past child-bearing age, or a man in his mid-50’s. If it wasn’t “you might have a baby” that grows to “you have babies” which segues to “you have children”, then you get to age discrimination, where they’d rather have someone “who could grow with the organization” — never mind that the mid-50’s person standing in front of them could beat someone 25 years younger than them by two hours in a marathon, has no health issues and has never used drugs or has a DUI, and has an extremely stable family situation, not to mention no kids in the house!

Employers don’t know what the hell they want. :-)


February 11th, 2013
1:28 pm

Does anyone watch “Shameless”? Last night dealt with harrassment in the workplace. I thought it pretty over the top but entertaining.

Real life

February 11th, 2013
1:34 pm

This is a double-edged sword. The law tells businesses what they can and, more importantly, cannot ask or do. Does possible pregnancy come into hiring decisions? Probably more often than we think. But businesses are there to make money and will take into consideration more than we think they do. That goes for women of child-bearing age, those who have had a major illness, those who are disabled and so on.

As a female, a mother, and a recognized expert in my career I have to ask myself if I am entitled to better benefits because I am a mother? I know this goes against the belief that being a parent, especially a mother, makes one more important than those who do not have children or whose children have left home. I see employees who are required to do their work and that of parents who are on leave (maternity, paternity, child activities, etc) and wonder why we, the parents, are treated as more valuable than co-workers who do not have them.

It is illegal to ask about future children, but sometimes I cannot find fault when someone unlikely to take maternity leave is hired over someone that probably will take it.


February 11th, 2013
1:35 pm

@ Motherjanegoose (9:10 a.m.)

Well, goodie for you that you were able to plan just when your children were born. Not everyone’s body works as perfectly as yours.


February 11th, 2013
1:36 pm

DB, the younger employee is cheaper, that is bottom line. All things being equal, keep the cheaper one. The health or home life between the two doesn’t come into play. Run all the marathons you want, that is for your own self validation, no one else cares.


February 11th, 2013
1:38 pm

@mom2alex&max: So, if the under 40’s can’t get a job because of kids, and the over 40’s can’t get a job because of age discrimination — what does that leave?


February 11th, 2013
1:46 pm

@MJG, you are soooo very fortunate to have been able to plan your pregnancies. I just gave birth to a child that was unplanned, even though I was using birth control. If you’re having sex, you can get pregnant! If you’re still having a cycle, you can get pregnant! It’s really quite shameful that any woman is for this type of foolishness.

Logical Dude

February 11th, 2013
1:49 pm

Sandberg wants a “much more open dialogue about gender”

Yes, wonderful, perfect in an ideal world. However, we do not live in an ideal world.

What else would this information be asked other than to use to disqualify a candidate? No, it should be kept private. Interviews are for making sure the person can perform the duties of the job, not a personal get to know the person.

Sure, after the person is hired, they can talk about personal stuff if they want to, but during the interview? More often than not, the person will be disqualified.


February 11th, 2013
1:52 pm

So the NY woman traveling alone had stayed with three different men in Amsterdam and in Turkey. She also had sex with a fourth man in a bar bathroom the night before she was killed.

Kind of make last week’s blog look stupid.

For both genders, travel as much as you like, but use common sense. Risky bahaviors often end badly.


February 11th, 2013
1:56 pm

@xxx, it’s not me, actually — it’s my husband. And in his field, there’s not really any sense of “cheaper for younger”, since the younger ones are getting astronomical salaries and he’s only being offered 2/3’s to 1/2 of that. It’s not a technical field, either, so there’s no sense of “someone who is more technologically adept.”

And I disagree about the “health and home life”, since that is EXACTLY what we are discussing here — an employees health (pregnancy) and home life (how her children will affect her ability to pull her weight in the organization.).

Speaking of ADA hires: There was one jerk at a previous job who, after numerous applications and being turned down for the same reason (lack of qualifications), finally wormed their way in by threatening ADA action because of his weight — he was grossly obese. Once he was in, everyone had to make accommodations for his weight — he needed a parking space near the door (not handicapped) because he had trouble walking (well, duh, 320 pounds on a 5-10 frame, I bet you do.) Then he brought in a minifridge and microwave in his office because the office fridge was on a different floor and too difficult to reach. I kid you not, the man would fix an entire Stouffer’s lasagna dinner for himself for lunch — the family size — and ate ALL DAY LONG. Office mates would gradually find somewhere else to work, even crowding two to a cubicle to avoid being in the same office as him, and people who brought goodies to the office soon learned not to leave them out, because he would literally sit down in the break room and eat an entire cake or an entire box of doughnuts before anyone else could get one. This is the kind of man that is impossible to fire, because he will wrap you up in litigation because life is “so unfair,” never mind that he whines anytime anything is assigned to him because he doesn’t think he should be forced to exert himself and actually MEET a freakin’ deadline.


February 11th, 2013
1:58 pm

DB I agree whole heartedly. My point was usually older, more tenured employees are more expensive that younger new hires and fair or not, are let go to save a few bucks in the short term.


February 11th, 2013
2:04 pm

@jarvis: You know, if it was a guy screwing his way around Europe, no one would think to mention how many people how many women he had had sex with. But let a woman do the same thing, and suddenly, it’s “blame the victim”, with some sort of weird “well, she was asking for it” vibe. No matter who she was sleeping with, she didn’t deserve to have her head based in and dumped by an abandoned wall.


February 11th, 2013
2:13 pm

Oh yeah. You’re rirght DB. If a married man headed over to Europe and was murdered, and there was evidence that he’d been shacking up all over the continent. No one would say, he “laid down with the wrong man’s wife.”

You full of schlitz.


February 11th, 2013
2:16 pm

Also, I didn’t say she deserved to have her head bashed in. I said it wasn’t surprising.


February 11th, 2013
2:19 pm

Oh, and might I add I did it at 40!