Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Marissa Mayer, Maternity Leave, And the Rest of Us

Recently I read a post about the new CEO of Yahoo! (Marissa Mayer), her pregnancy, and her plans for maternity leave. She commented that her leave would be just a few weeks and that she was planning to work throughout.

Her comments rankled me. Not because I think she should be taking longer at home for the sake of her child, but for two other reasons: 1) I think that it sets an unrealistic example for other career women, 2) I think it sets an unrealistic expectation for herself.

Later in the day, the team I'm a part of (working on a research project which examines the trends of women's underrepresentation in STEM fields) discussed her appointment to this prestigious position, and her comments to the media. We got into a lively discussion about the issue and it led me to decide to write this blog.

Before I do, I want to recognize that others had the same reactions I did. This article on likely says it better and more succinctly than I will. But I'm going to go ahead and write anyway, because the quilt I was working on is finished and I haven't gone to the store to get cake mix for cake decorating class (more on both of these topics later). Likewise, just a few weeks ago, I read this article in The Atlantic that really confirmed some of my thoughts about the difficulties of being a working mother, and how the glass ceiling may be cracked, but some problems are not even close to being solved.

First, I want to say that I have a lot of respect for working moms, and especially for women who are in very visible and high pressure positions. I think they have the unfair responsibility of "representation" and tokenism - as though they must be standard bearers for the rest of us who hope to one day have work, children, and other life bonuses.

That being said, they ARE representatives for the rest of us, and when a women takes a high profile job and says, "They didn't bat an eye that I was pregnant." that is good for all of us - it encourages the rest of us that it is possible for us to get a job when pregnant, that we won't be discriminated against because we want a family, etc. But when she follows that up with, "Don't worry, I'll only miss a few days of work when I have my baby!", the encouragement turns to sighs of exasperation. I see two main problems with this unrealistic expectation. First, it sets the expectation of bosses, managers, other business leaders, that women don't need a full maternity leave. As one of my friends put it "it means that all the work that was done to get us maternity leave is moot." Second, it makes women who are struggling to even check their email in the midst of their maternity leave seem inadequate and incapable.      What hope is there for the rest of us who want to take a full maternity leave, who don't want to work during our leave, or who barely have the time to open the computer, let alone time and mental energy log into work email and write conference proposals or research papers.

The article does a great job of saying why women in high ranking positions may be able to take shorter leave and work during their leave (they are more likely to have household and child-rearing support), and how this is harmful to those of us who will not have those things (in addition to our partners at least). So I recommend reading it for more thoughts on the issue.

My second issue is mostly grief that Mayer feels as though she has to make this statement at all. It is unfair to her that she feels like she has to justify her maternity leave in any way shape or form. It shouldn't even be a topic of conversation - whether she takes 2 weeks or 2 months, why does she have to bring it up? I'm guessing she wasn't doing it to brag on how quickly she'll be back at work, but rather  to defend her appointment to a visible position where she reports to a board of directors and shareholders. Maybe she doesn't want to take a 2 month maternity leave, but we don't, and can't, know that - whether she wants to or not,  she is in a position where she feels like she has to publicly declare "But don't worry, I'm awesome and will still run this company even while nursing my newborn." Why not say, "Don't worry, I have a great staff and I'll be available for urgent issues, and the company will be fine while I'm gone." I hope she succeeds, but I fear she sets herself up for failure - if she struggles to balance caring for her newborn and her job, then one is going to have to suffer and neither are good options in her current situation.

Curby and I hope to have kids someday. And it seems likely that we will both have to work to support our family - especially if we stay in LA. And if we leave LA for a faculty post somewhere, then at the least I'll be working. I'm blessed, because there is a lot of flexibility in terms of where/when you work as a faculty person - but most people aren't in that position. Public figures, like Mayer, and authors like the woman who wrote the article in the Atlantic (who used to work for Secretary Clinton), remind me that something has to give.

For the record, men can't have it all either. Here is a response to the article in the Atlantic:

What do you think, friends? Do you applaud Mayer for her comments, or did you groan with me and ask "Why did you say that publicly?!" Do you think women (or men) can "have it all"?