It’s impossible not to feel excited, inspired, just darned pleased, that Marissa Mayer is Yahoo’s new CEO and, indeed, the first ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Maybe the world is becoming a better place for women after all.
Mayer resigned from Google on Monday and started as Yahoo’s new CEO on Tuesday. She’s a 37-year-old engineer in a field very much dominated by men and, indeed, by young 20-something guys. She is six months pregnant with a “super-active” boy who is due on October 7 and she is planning on barely taking any maternity leave. As she told Fortune:
“I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
As recently noted here on Care2.com, the US is distinctly behind the rest of the world in providing maternity leave, much less paternity leave:
American women are offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which exempts companies with fewer than 50 paid employees, but in 2011, only 11 percent of private sector workers and 17 percent of public workers reported that they had access to paid maternity leave through their employer. And for first-time mothers, only about half can take paid leave when they give birth.
Factor in that 50 percent of American families had two working parents in 2010 and that 26 percent of households are headed by single parents: Without guaranteed maternity leave, many American women may not even be able to take a few weeks off after giving birth.
Is Mayer Setting the Wrong Example?
Writing in the Washington Post, Janice D’Arcy notes that Mayer has “come under attack in some quarters” for saying she is not really taking any time off after the birth of her son, raising two questions:
What’s the benefit of a new mom in such a high-profile position if she’s going to act like she doesn’t need maternity leave?
And, does Mayer have a responsibility to advocate for the rest of working parents?
When it comes to maternity leave, most companies, says D’Arcy, provide the barest legal requirement for either parent, with businesses of 50 or more employees offering twelve weeks of unpaid family leave. Less than a quarter offer any paid family leave; seven weeks of paid leave is the most generous according to a survey by Working Mother magazine.
Women have had much to say regarding Mayer’s optimism about starting an extremely high-profile job with the eyes of the world on her at the same time she becomes a mother: She’s doing other working mothers no favors, she is playing into the hands of people who say maternity leave is unnecessary, she is completely unrealistic. Certainly, Mayer is assuming neither she nor the baby have any complications that might require the unexpected “drop everything to take care of the baby!” moments I’ve had in 15 years of motherhood and work.
Can Mayer Have It All?
Care2 blogger Ashley Lauren recently wrote about whether or not women can “have it all” — can have a full-time career and be full-time mothers — and Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo CEO and impending pregnancy have brought such issues again to the fore. Writing from across the Atlantic in the Guardian, Jane Martinson offers Mayer plenty of praise but wonders at her statements about maternity leave.
Mayer told Yahoo directors shortly after being contacted by headhunters for the top job that she was pregnant. They “showed their evolved thinking” in not once asking her about it.
In the UK and much of Europe, “evolution” on the matter in general means a push towards shared parental leave and more time off. So, although her appointment is fantastic news for many reasons (which I’ll come to later) it conveniently shows the gulf between the US and much of Europe when it comes to the rights of working parents. Even our own, in some ways neanderthal government, has posited opening up the right to a year’s parental leave to both men and women equally. Yet in the US, where women have the right only to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave, progress is often perceived as a woman giving birth while signing off on an acquisition and sacking a few hundred staff members.
Martinson points out that, indeed, the whole issue of paid maternity, and paternity leave, is in many ways moot in Mayer’s case as she is “is already fabulously wealthy and able to pay for her own army of childcarers.”
But Martinson’s comments hint at why, in the US, paid parental leave is only grudgingly allotted and bears the reputation of a luxury, a privilege, a sign of weakness, something women should be oh-so-grateful to their employers for “granting.” Is it progress” for women to swing into supermom mode and leap into work clothes after spending 21 1/2 hours in labor and learning to get a newborn to latch on?
As many are saying, Mayer has her work cut out for her as Yahoo’s #1. The company has struggled mightily for years and seen a revolving door of CEOs; its chief executive cannot take time off. As a woman and a working mother, I wonder: What if American corporate culture actually took the needs of children, families, mothers, women who’ve recently given birth into consideration and revolved around building business in a way to foster executives’ (and, of course, workers’) lives, rather than being driven by profit margins? Having worked for years in male-dominated Silicon Valley, is Mayer unable to imagine ordering her life around anything but this culture’s demands?
I know those questions probably sound very laughable, are not what business is about and are beyond both the possible and the imaginable.
But then, in the not so distant past, a pregnant female engineer becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 Company probably sounded just as ridiculous and impossible, too.
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