Is Mark Zuckerberg really changing the game?

27 Nov

Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he will take two months paternity leave when his daughter is born, a move that has been widely hailed as game changer for family-friendly working and gender equality. As someone who has long argued for the benefits of paternity leave for men, women and children, it seems churlish to do anything other than high-five along with everyone else who has rushed to praise him, and to remind us of the importance of CEOs leading on culture change in the workplace.

But there is a but. Or rather two buts. The first is the length of the leave. Facebook has just announced that staff will be able to take four months leave following birth. So yet again we have the image of a figurehead taking less parental leave than the full entitlement available to staff – two months may be great progress on the amount of leave routinely taken by senior American fathers, but it still leaves the impression that taking full entitlement is optional, and there for the little people, rather than those at the top.

And the second ‘but’ relates to gender. Zuckerberg is a man, and like many before him he seems to be benefitting from the halo effect of doing anything related to family at all. I’m an equal opportunities type, so I think it’s only fair to raise the question of his shorter-than-full-entitlement leave, just as I did for Marissa Mayer. And I’ll bet you’ve heard a lot more about her announcement to take only two weeks leave than you have about Mr Zuckerberg’s decision. He has not been submitted to the same level of scrutiny as she was – albeit that at two weeks, her own length of proposed leave was much shorter, and will of course include personally giving birth. It’s interesting too that Zuckerberg announced his decision as a ‘very personal’ one. This is typical of tech culture’s privileging of individual choice. The two months paternity leave for Facebook’s CEO will only be a game changer for working men, if a few more of them examine their navels (or the protruding ones of their pregnant partners), and reach the same ’very personal’ decision. It seems a little ironic that culture change in a social media environment is apparently down to the accumulation of a series of personal decisions….

So while agreeing that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to take leave is broadly a good thing, let’s not get carried away. He is doing it because he can – unlike the majority of US workers who have few leave entitlements, and may not be able to afford those that there are. His actions may make a difference to some other people influential enough to impact on the rest of us. And perhaps we shouldn’t overlook the point made to me when I noted my dismay at Marissa Mayer’s fortnight – ‘don’t forget Yahoo is in a bit of trouble she may not have much choice’, corporate watchers said. Facebook is not apparently in trouble and the CEO is taking half of his full leave entitlement. Do I hear the sound of one hand clapping?





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