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leah eichler

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, but what troubles me is when the business community wants to talk about it, too.

It seems impossible to talk about the advancement of women in business without someone dropping the word "baby" into the equation. It's high time companies take their eyes off our navels.

That is why I found Sheryl Sandberg's suggestion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, so disappointing. Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook Inc. – and the unofficial figurehead for many women in business – suggested that companies should ask women directly about their family plans. Given that 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 per cent less likely to be promoted compared with childless women and will see their salary reduced by $11,000 (U.S.).

Ms. Sandberg's remark underscores her failure to understand the discrimination to which a woman may be subjected, said Natalie MacDonald, a partner at Grosman, Grosman & Gale in Toronto, and author of 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," Ms. MacDonald said.

The inference of Ms. Sandberg's statement also appears simplistic. Will companies only ask these questions to married, heterosexual women? Will they also ask potential employees if they plan to care for aging parents or sick partners? What repercussions will exist if an employee decides to change her mind after being hired?

Each time business leaders focus on how reproduction affects women's work, the less seriously women 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 given that "today's babies are tomorrow's taxpayers," as one New York Times columnist astutely observed.

So when the U.S. birthrate plunged to a record low in 2011, pundits theorized on how to reverse the trend either by offering financial incentives or de-emphasizing our pre-occupation for happiness.

Not everyone views this trend toward fewer children as carrying dire economic results. Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University in California and well-known demographer, argues that falling birthrates in the developing world is "the best possible news."

"Babies in the developing world grow up to become super consumers," said Prof. Ehrlich, who argues in a Proceedings of the Royal Society online 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 and modern contraception (and back-up abortions if that fails). That gives countries the opportunity to take full advantage 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 and author of an Atlantic magazine essay, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," recently wrote about the trend of University of Pennsylvania Wharton School graduates (men and women both) 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.

We need to stop seeing women as either baby factories that generate our future work force, or as primary caregivers. Both images work to keep women out of the C-suite. For the record, I love my children more than anything 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.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics

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