Companies should be able to ask women about their plans for a family, according to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most senior women in Silicon Valley.
Ms Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer, said women are held back at work by stereotypes that firms are unwilling to talk about.
She called for “much more open dialogue about gender”, including discussing with female employees whether they plan to have children.
“Every HR department tells you not to do that … but we need to have a much more open conversation,” she told the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos , Switzerland.
“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.”
As an example of the nervousness around the subject, she cited her own lawyer who had told her she could not publish an article on urging women to “lean in” to their careers as opposed to pulling back from their work before starting a family.
“Then I thought, he works for me,” she said. “If someone wants to sue me because I’m talking about gender discrimination, go ahead.”
Ms Sandberg was speaking at a session on how boost women’s role in economic decision making.
Christine Lagarde, who as head of the International Monetary Fund is one of the foremost women in global economics, said she herself had experienced “my lot of discrimination”.
“I was brought up with brothers, I grew up in a boys’ world,” she said. “You have to elbow your way in.”
Women are often handed the top jobs in situations where an organisation is “a basket case, a lost cause - and they turn it around,” she said.
The UK meanwhile was held up as an example of the obstacles preventing more women from progressing.
Kevin Kelly, chief executive of headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles and the sole man on the panel, told a story of British hiring processes which he thought went to the “crux of the issue”.