The real problem with Marrisa Mayer’s Maternity Leave

Debate has been blowing up over the New Yahoo! (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer, who took an even shorter maternity leave than the already truncated one she announced back in July. An inner office email has been circulating around my agency in regards to her extreme leave and the responses are definitely impassioned. The biggest response that caught my eye is “Why do we care? Let her do what she wants.” But it’s not that easy. Read below to find out why.

It’s not about what is right or wrong when it comes to maternity leave. Those decisions are deeply, intensely personal ones that depend on a variety of factors such as family composition, household income, job requirements etcetera. I think that’s why a lot of these responses are getting so personal and  a little heated.

But what’s really at stake here is our ability to be able to make these decisions about our maternity leave. The reason we care about how amazingly short Mayer’s maternity leave was is because she has, in effect, set a standard that many women can’t or don’t feel comfortable measuring up to. Because of her high profile career, her personal decision to take a short maternity has a halo effect on the rest of women. I don’t think anyone could argue against the fact that corporations routinely jump on any piece of evidence that can help build a case to limit women’s access to distinctly female necessities (i.e. nursing rooms, affordable contraception, reduced copays for gynecological exams, etc.) I can easily see businesses using Mayer’s maternity leave as a precedence for shortening the already short and minimally compensated maternity leave.

For some women, like Mayer, who can afford daycares and nurses or who maybe have some sort of nursery option made available to them by their employer, this would not be a big problem. But for those women who can’t afford those expenses or don’t have access to those resources, even a few weeks of shortened maternity leave or compensation could create unnecessary hardship during such a crucial time in a woman’s life. This isn’t even taking into account the developmental needs of the infant, which can be debated. And it doesn’t begin to shed light on the pressures that new and expectant moms face to measure up to already impossible standards of new motherhood (think how quickly celebrities loose baby weight or the great breast feeding debate). As for the role of paternity leave, I applaud those fathers who are able to take the time off to bond with their infants. But paternity leave is a different battle. What we’re discussing here is a precedent that could, in effect, have a massively detrimental effect on a lot of women.

And that, my lovely ladies, is why we care.

Is it messed up that her decision has this effect? Yes, it is. But as a woman in the spotlight, she has taken on that responsibility. What could she have done better? I don’t know. Maybe she could have issued a public statement? I mean, I don’t want her to have to defend her decision. She had her reasons. But if she accepts the role that she is in and fully owns it, she might be able to make a positive change for women… and help put an end to all of us bickering! In my opinion.

Join the Conversation

  • Smiley

    I feel for the poor Ms Meyer.

    It appears that not only must she try to save Yahoo, but also she must act as a role model for a whole generation of mothers or mothers-to-be.

    And since when has that part been specified in her contract? Or is it simply implied? And by whom, may I ask?

    Presumably her decision has been agreed with the company, and they feel that the company’s image is not damaged. I therefore ask this question: does the company have any responsibility to the mothers or mothers-to-be of America? Any at all?

    I would say no.

    Had poor Ms Mayer taken an extended leave, this site no doubt would have attacked her for that too (‘she can afforf it’).

    But back to my initial question. Why the expectation that anyone in a public position should be a role model? Is Mick Jagger lambasted for his ‘superficial’ approach to relationships? Or CEO’s reproached for marrying young models (demeaning to women and depressing for ‘normal’-sized women)?

    And if Ms Mayer works 70 hour weeks, should she be pilloried for that too?

    • Sarah

      Smiley, I think your thoughts and feelings are shared by a lot of people in regards to Mayer’s maternity leave. But I would also say that this train of thought is awfully naive to the struggles of women in corporate situations and pushback we often receive when going after female-centric workplace rights.

      Mayer signed up to save Yahoo and, in doing so, projected herself into the limelight. Debates on whether or not celebrities (Hollywood or not) have any reasonable expectation of privacy go either way, but the fact of the matter is that the effects of her decisions are not isolated to her personal life. As a woman in the public eye, her decisions can have an effect of all women simply because of the fact that her decisions are so visible.

      “Role model for mothers to be” might not have been specifically written out in her contract but it is an onus she took, whether she likes it or not. Is it right? No! How do we push back? By not talking about it, maybe. Don’t let her be that role model. But when so many people are lending their voices to this debate and completely missing the point, the point being that her decision could effect the ABILITY of all women to make similar or different decisions, it seems necessary to stand up and make our way to the podium.

      I only wish that she would put her voice into the debate. Perhaps her word could be the last one.

      • honeybee

        So what you’re really saying is that yes, regardless of her wants, she has to assume the role of role model, even if she didn’t ask for it and even if many others in her position are not given this role.

        This is such a hard subject though, b/c while I totally agree that she shouldn’t have to worry about being a role model – that’s not her job – on the other hand if you absolve every individual of any responsibility b/c they are an individual, how do you tackle this at a macro level, since ultimately macro boils down to individuals.

        Still if I have to choose I have to say that she shouldn’t be held up as the role model on this. She’s one woman, in unique circumstances, just trying to do her job as CEO. She shouldn’t have to worry about how her actions will be perceived. Doing so is sexist IMO.

  • Franzia Kafka

    I think the problem with maternity leave is really a problem with corporate culture, namely the one that has been exacerbated by workers being attached to phones and computers 24/7: constant availability, and the expectation to work an over-40-hour workweek, and for one person to do the jobs of several people. Corporations still act like they have a right to own your life in exchange for coughing up your measly paycheck every week. This sense of corporate entitlement affects not only people’s time, but their political and volunteer activities, physical appearance, etc. (and sometimes even who you vote for: ).

    Mayer *could* be an agent and advocate for change, though it appears she’s not interested in doing so. Because she’s not interested in doing so, I don’t think anyone should hold up her decisions as some sort of standard or precedent. I agree it’s unfortunate that she could not at least *model* woman-friendly policies. I don’t know that she necessarily deserves our judgment for that. She’s trying to keep her job like the rest of us. We may feel that she has way more power and influence than we do, but she may feel like she still doesn’t have enough to be a political advocate. Some people are more socially conscious than others.

    We may just have to wait for more socially conscious women business leaders to advocate for woman-friendly workplaces. In the meantime, we must remind others why it’s ignorant to claim that women shouldn’t need maternity leave because CEOs like Melissa Mayer didn’t need it. It turns a human-dignity issue into a Maternity Leave Olympics or, for sick leave, an Illness Olympics. The issue is not how my pregnancy situation stacks up to Melissa Mayer’s. The issue is that people should be able to afford basic human dignities like staying home with their newborns and staying home when they’re sick. They’re not outrageous, unreasonable expectations – they’re good for society and good for workplaces.

    Further, having kids is not some kind of anomalous “choice” – it is a norm, and a natural right. Corporate America needs to catch up with this in regard to maternity leave and child care and stop making judgmental excuses about how “it’s a choice to stay home with kids”. Women shouldn’t have to choose between having children or having a decent career, especially when fathers are never asked to make the same choice or to suffer the same consequences.