Marissa Mayer Starts Maternity Leave Debate

Photo by Giorgio Montersino

The appointment of Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s new CEO was an interesting news story tweeted about by those interested in technology and hailed as a breakthrough for women everywhere. Then the news broke that Mayer is pregnant and suddenly everyone had an opinion.

Some praised Yahoo’s willingness to overlook her pregnancy and hire her, others criticized her for taking on such a task at this stage in her life and others questioned why we celebrate women who are aberrations.

One particularly nasty comment suggested that Mayer should give up her baby for adoption if she wasn’t planning on spending any time with the baby. Of course this is the internet and there are no depths to what people will write. While most comments were more thoughtful and polite there were no shortages of opinions on her maternity leave plans. People Magazine even ran a poll asking its readers what they thought of Mayer taking a shortened, working maternity leave. As many pointed out, People would have never asked the question of a male CEO whose wife was expecting.

I’m not here to criticize Marissa Mayer because I don’t know her personally and cannot anticipate what her life as a mother will look like. And honestly, at this point, Mayer, herself, doesn’t completely know what her life as a mother will look like.

Although having a new baby and being a CEO will be tough, I have no doubt that Mayer will manage it. With her wealth and position she could start an on-site daycare, have her nannies bring her son to the office for feedings or have her husband stay at home. She can outsource her cooking, laundry, cleaning and even aspects of her job. She is also used to working a reported 130 hours a week and only needing to sleep 4-6 hours a night.

While not many women would choose to continue working throughout their maternity leave, Mayer is an exceptionally driven young woman. She could have chosen to stay to stay at Google and take advantage of their generous maternity leave but she took the Yahoo position knowing full well the work required.

For all the criticism out there, Mayer is a fortunate woman who was able to choose if she wanted to work at all, where she wants to work, when she wants to work and will have access to the best childcare arrangements. The real tragedy is women who go back to work a few weeks after birth because of the lack of US federal laws mandating maternity leave and subsequent financial needs with less than ideal childcare arrangements.

The debate shouldn’t be about how one particular executive wants to spend her maternity leave but about making sure more women have the choice to spend those precious first few months at home with their child if that’s what they want to do.

The US is one of only four countries in the world without a national law providing paid leave for parents. In Canada, where mothers and father can share up to 50 weeks of paid leave, it is expected that women take about a year off. I know very few women who didn’t take advantage of their full leave even though it only pays up to 55% of their wage and the cap means that many women are bringing in less than half their previous income.

When the laws change to support maternity leave, the general consensus changes and a long maternity leave becomes expected and normalized. Although women know they are important to their companies they also realize they are irreplaceable to their child.

Mayer’s decisions are a reminder of the importance of choice. It’s time we open up the debate about maternity leave and work towards ensuring all women have more choices about when and how they return to work after having a baby.

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