The glass ceiling may be cracking but the glass womb is far stronger
Published 17/04/2014 | 02:30
I love Sheryl Sandberg. I love that someone like her is out there inspiring young women to believe that the world is at their feet. That there is nothing standing in their way except fear. Challenging them to seek out opportunities for themselves. Teaching them that there is no glass ceiling and that if they are ballsy, confident and competent they will achieve great things.
You are the generation that will achieve equality, she told the students in the audience at the Facebook International Headquarters in Dublin yesterday. It will be there for my daughter because of you and for that I thank you.
I believe a lot of the things that Sandberg professes, with one big qualification. I believe that there is nothing standing in a woman's way career-wise, until she has children, that is. There may not be a glass ceiling, but there is a very solid glass womb.
And it is a complex structure – part historical, part guilt, part maternal instinct, part fear, part insecurity, part wanting to see the children you adore grow up and part financial, due to the high cost of good childcare.
Paid maternity leave is another big contributor to the glass womb. Because most careers are not hampered by having children per se, but by extended leave from the workplace. You only have to compare Europe with the US to see that this is the case.
So when she was asked by an audience member what one legislative change she would make if she had the power, I was surprised by Sandberg's answer. She would implement paid maternity leave for the women in the US, her home country.
I brought it up with her after the talk. I mentioned that it is the countries with the best maternity leave, which just happen to be the Scandinavian countries, where it varies from 480 days at 80pc pay (Sweden) to 46 weeks (Norway), that have the lowest number of women in highly paid, influential corporate or political positions.
The number of influential, powerful women is much higher in the US, where there is no such leave. Change, as she said herself, will not come until you have more women in positions of power and influence.
Yes, she said. You cannot legislate for equality.
So where maternity leave is without a doubt a great thing in some ways and beneficial to the individual who chooses to take it – myself included, I was delighted to have eight months to recover from the birth of my daughter and settle her into the world, and would do it again – it can only be deduced that it is the opposite to the collective.
Maternity leave enshrined in law further compounds the idea that parenting and childcare are primarily the responsibility of the mother. Dividing it between spouses might be a solution, but I think equality is a lot further off than Sandberg predicts.