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A "girl question"

Any woman who works — particularly in a corporate environment — knows the risk of asking a "girl question." These questions usually are about pregnancy and child care. Questions like:

1. Is maternity leave paid?
2. Can I use a sick day to take my child to the doctor?
3. Is there a private room where I can pump milk?
4. Does anyone notice the spit-up on my pants? (This would be a "girl question" to ask yourself.)

well-crafted article by Ken Auletta, "A Woman's Place," in this week's issue of The New Yorker looks at the rise of Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, mother of two young children, and at questions like those above.

Written as a profile, the article quickly morphs into a look at women in the working world and the push by Sandberg, and women in tech to equalize this space. Sandberg appears to be a standard bearer and all the check marks are there: Friends with Gloria Steinem? Check. Commencement speaker at a Seven Sisters? Check. Organizer of a company-wide Women's Leadership Day? Check. And then there's this:

Now Priti Youssef Choksi, Facebook’s director of business development, asked whether it was “a girl question” to pose concerns about, say, maternity leave.
Sandberg and the female executives in the room said that they thought it risked being a “girl question” if it was asked in a “whiny” way.


The lead-in is Sandberg's concern about the role a woman herself may play in how she's accepted and perceived as an equal in the work place. Does she volunteer for more weighty roles? Does she own her power? Does the idea of becoming pregnant cause her to pull back from more responsibility?

But then out pops the "girl question" and we're back to corsets and scrub boards.

When women as intelligent as Sandberg still perceive concerns about child-care and maternity as a "girl question," women can never be seen as equals. For reasons of biology, it's women who carry babies, yes. Yet for many, working is not just a choice our great-grandmother's fought for — but an economic need. 

According to U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of all mothers do work — 63.6% of women with children under the age of 6, compared to 78.2% of women with children between the ages of 6 to 17.

For some though, working is a choice they make because they love their careers, having support at home, work and their community. (Don't underestimate this.) But when women are still faced at being labeled "whiny" because they want to know they can recover from a C-section, or are curious how much time they'll have to safely settle their newest family member, or even if they can take less maternity leave than offered (the reason behind the actual question in the article) they're still being seen as less-than men. And it's hard to be excited about pushing ahead when your biology one day may derail you.

Sandberg first instinct that this is a "girl question" means another generation of top level executives are still stigmatizing women for their own biology — or at least are concerned they'll be seen as "whiny" for potentially asking the question in the first place. 

And that makes this "girl" wonder for her own.


Kate S. said…
Good post, Lauren. Food for thought.

Women can be each other's worst enemies. I've had some interesting experiences in the past with female bosses, and oddly enough, I've found that those with families are often the least likely to make 'concessions' about anything child-related within the workplace.

This may well have been because those bosses were older than I am (or was, back then, when I was a corporate slave) and when they were rising up it was at a time when they had to claw their way up the ladder and be more of 'man' than the men in order to be taken seriously. My feeling is that as a result of the hard time they had, they were then loathe to make it easier for the next generation. Not the best attitude, in my opinion, but perhaps understandable.

Things obviously need to change. I don't have the answers as to how, though - any other opinions?

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