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Is Maternity Leave Becoming a Misnomer or Non-Existent for Working Women?

10.01.2012
 
 

A feature article from Director Beth Ehrgott, working mother of two


Marissa Mayer was five months pregnant when she accepted the executive position as Yahoo’s new CEO (YHOO). Now, with the news that she gave birth to a baby boy on September 30, many are wondering if she will be true to her word and only take a few weeks of maternity leave, working from home throughout.  This announcement has caused quite a stir in executive circles and the parenting world alike.

With Ms. Mayer’s decision, have we gone back in time? I can’t help but have visions of women from generations past squatting in the field to deliver a baby and then returning right back to their daily chores with the swaddled baby attached to their hips. Women have been socialized for generations to “do it all,” but in this day and age, why do we still place such unrealistic expectations on women immediately after giving birth? Parenting, and parent-child bonding, especially in the period following birth, are important to the infant’s socialization and to society…worthy goals to be encouraged and supported by the business world.

Whether it is a boardroom executive who has the choice of juggling career with motherhood or a single mom working two jobs, each woman needs to do what is best for herself, her baby, and her family. So while the pundits and commentators are waiting on Ms. Mayer to decide what is best for her, I visited with current female executives and those from prior eras to gain their perspective.

Immediate reactions to Ms. Mayer’s plan to “work throughout it” varied from dismay to absolute disgust; some even thought it was a joke. All cautioned that one should never commit to an exact return date before the baby’s arrival. “For one thing, as a new mother, you want to leave yourself some flexibility should you or the baby have health issues.” Aside from the obvious physical recovery, equally important is the emotional adjustment to having your world change instantaneously.

A Senior Vice President of a Fortune 50 pharmaceutical corporation commented, “It’s really difficult to have it all.” Most corporate women she knows have either live-in nannies or their husbands stay home. “It has become very difficult to raise a family with both parents working in two fast-paced, high stress positions that require significant time away from home. It creates too much pressure.”


For women climbing the corporate ladder, this is often the compromise they make. She also added that almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make family sacrifices in order to build their careers; sacrifices that men were far less likely to have to make. For many of these women, the fear of being perceived as choosing family over career eliminates any viable work-life balance.

Our societal norms cannot change unless top women speak out… and Ms. Mayer is not helping on this front at all. Why should we embrace leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Ms. Mayer may be a brilliant leader who Yahoo is banking on to turn around the company, but she is not the ideal role model for working women. Only a small percentage of mothers can afford to hire round-the-clock help so they can work throughout leave, and even if this were in the best interests of infant and parent, I’ll bet most mothers would prefer to be the initial primary care-giver for their babies, because maternal bonding is both instinctual and important. In addition, those interviewed noted that if a mother chooses to be more involved, getting up in the middle of the night, etc., she will be sleep-deprived and challenged at the office.

All of the career women I interviewed cherished the time they could spend with their babies, (12 weeks – four months was the norm) and all commented that 12-weeks was not enough. To quote one mom, “Raising a child is a life long journey.”

An executive with a global investment bank commented, “Ms. Mayer’s stance is tone deaf to the next generation of mothers that require and expect flexibility, respect, and have in many cases, been raised by working or working single mothers. No woman believes that she is a better leader or mother because she plans on returning to work immediately. This is not something you schedule, like getting your tonsils out. Let’s not make the same mistakes of the past – let’s show that it is ok to be wonderful and brilliant both at work and unapologetically, at home.”

Finally, an EVP of a global technology corporation commented, “it seems kind of foolish to have committed to such an aggressive return date, but since she did, she should honor it. As a senior leader, your word has to be golden and as a woman, integrity is even more critical. In my view, she risks both her integrity and credibility if she doesn’t honor it...however, she may stumble...”

While my survey was purely informal and most women executives had reservations about the box into which Ms. Mayer has painted herself, one executive said “while a two week maternity leave may be the public line, it is very possible that Ms. Mayer privately negotiated a different timeframe. Because of Yahoo’s highly publicized CEO challenges, it needed a CEO who was not going to leave the helm empty for several months. Public perception can be quite different from private reality. I guess interested women executives, shareholders and pundits will all have to wait to see what Ms. Mayer “delivers.”


2 Comments

January 22, 2013 AT 3:32 PM CST

Anonymous wrote:

Whether a man or a woman, hard to run a Fortune 500 company if on leave for extended period, especially if you are new to the job and still in the process of establishing your stamp on the company




January 29, 2013 AT 4:15 PM CST

E.N. wrote:

Ms. Mayer's responsibility right now is 1) to her child and 2) to her employer, which she leads, and at which she is paid- -a lot-- to be responsible for the welfare of every investor and employee. Her responsibility is not to "the next generation of working women." Unless women like Mayer help close the salary gap, women will never be able to afford the backup care that enables them to have both. I went back to work 3 weeks after a C-section in a job at which I was similarly relatively new-- under pressure from my employer to do so, and fielded calls throughout. Even so, my boss took me aside when I got back to say he "questioned my commitment to the job." The birth is also not the end of the story for mothers-- it is just the beginning. For me, this "slacker" perception continued even when my baby ended up in intensive care and almost died. The president of the company sent work down to the hospital and had the poor person delivering it actually stuck it into the oxygen tent in which I was sitting. The work was inconsequential stuff-- he was sending a message. It doesn't matter what women negotiate, that's the perception by male counterparts-- who usually run if not the company, the board, according to all statistics. I was the top woman at the company, an SVP. In the end, any focus at all on my child basically cost me my job, but I survived and so did he. I realized that I had made it to the top because I had waited till age 40 to get pregnant and spent 15 years at 150% job focus, including weekends and holidays. That equalled golden girl status. "Work/life balance" did not. Still, the only way to change these horrible attitudes is for women at the top to succeed-- and you don't succeed from the nursery, especially if you are new at the company- -that is both the perception and unfortunately the reality. Let's also note here that the baby has 2 parents. Where's discussion about the father? In my case, I was able to continue my successful career because my husband quit his job and became Mr. Mom. Nobody can do it all, it's a total myth, and to think Mayer can change the way men think about working mothers is naive. The person you end up apologizing to in the end when you try to do this is not the boss but your child. And the person who suffers most is the woman herself, torn with stress. You can only control yourself, not others around you.




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