I’m 99% sure that we can’t all do maternity leave like the 1%

3 Sep

Marissa Mayer has sparked a debate over maternity leave through her announcement that she will be taking only 2 weeks maternity leave when she gives birth in December. She’s the CEO of Yahoo, one of the highest paid executives in the world, in the notoriously male-dominated world of technology companies. When she had her first child, she followed this same path, and raised a few eyebrows soon afterwards by banning remote working for her employees, while installing a nursery next her own office to accommodate her child alongside her professional responsibilities.

Predictably there has been a spate of articles saying that maternity leave is a personal choice for her, which she is exercising for herself, just as a man in her position would; isn’t it sexist to see her differently from a male CEO making the same choices within weeks of becoming a father? I’m not sure it is. It is not sexist to say that it is different to go through the transition to parenthood as the person who actually gives birth and who may breastfeed afterwards, from being the parent who supports this process. Both parents may be equally important to their children, but the physical impact of childbirth is experienced uniquely by women. For many women this is a relatively straightforward and highly rewarding process, but some births are a lot easier to recover from than others, and two weeks recovery before resuming even lightened work duties would not work for every mother. Or for every type of work come to that. Mayer is to be praised for extending Yahoo’s maternity benefits to encompass 16 weeks of paid leave. In a country still without any mandatory parental leave system, this is an important benefit for employees. However, by not taking it herself, Mayer leaves the suggestion that parental leave is for the little people hanging in the air.

And of course, no-one is asking what role her husband will be playing in their presumably joint decision to arrange things this way. Is he taking time off? Is he going to be primary parent while his wife guides her company through a crucial period? Whether he is doing these things or not, the public assumption is that Mayer’s stellar salary will cover the kind of high-quality round-the-clock childcare that most people can only dream of. And it is certainly true that she can afford it.

Parental leave policies facilitate equality and diversity in the workplace. Female workers in tech report feeling compromised and marginalised by the choices for balancing work and family life available in this particular culture, and they often leave. Silicon Valley companies have recently launched a number of high profile parental leave packages, presumably with a view to retain valuable employees. Parental leave should facilitate both sexes in both their careers and their family life. By not being a visible proponent of her company’s maternity leave policies, Mayer underlines the exceptionalism of her position, rather than providing an attainable path for many others.

And this brings us back to the individual choice issue: Marissa Mayer is doing what she is doing because she can. She has a powerful position from which to negotiate terms, she has the support of her board and has put in place an infrastructure to enable her to continue working with her children close at hand, and to cover childcare needs whenever they crop up. Most people are simply not in that position.

Here in the UK, 54,000 women are losing jobs through maternity-related discrimination each year, even in a system where maternity leave is available for most workers. Many professions still suffer from ‘leaky pipelines’ in terms of promoting women to senior levels, and childcare costs are so high both here and in the USA that many families find it simply uneconomic for both parents to carry on working as they might otherwise choose to do. I read a comment in an American article that ‘millenials’ are ‘seeking a solution that works for them, not a one-size-fits-all maternity policy’, a stance which sees Mayer as a great example of what is possible. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster a climate which caters for the needs of many, who take both their working lives and family lives seriously, and who wish to stay off the breadline. It’s not enough to make maternity leave an individualistic lifehack; we need policies in place so that more parents can hack it in the system. In Europe it is often argued that senior managers must visibly buy into flexible working and parental leave plans in order for men to even consider taking them up; if senior women in the USA don’t take up corporate leave packages, we’re left with the same old ‘default male’ models of success for the majority of employees. Is that good enough for us?




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