Emma Cowing: Motherhood is not a minor inconvenience
UNTIL I logged on to Facebook yesterday morning, I had never heard of Marissa Mayer. Chances are, unless you live in Silicon Valley or have a subscription to Wired magazine, you haven’t either. But this week’s announcement that the Google vice-president had been appointed chief executive of Yahoo! at the age of 37 has firmly pushed Mayer’s name up there into the tech company firmament, alongside the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Larry Page and Amazon’s Jeffrey Bezos.
In case there were any room for doubt (and with a name like Marissa that is admittedly unlikely), Mayer is a woman.
Some of my female contemporaries are rather excited about this. “CEO at 37 – impressive!” one old school friend, now a high-flyer in another Silicon Valley firm, wrote on her Facebook page. I agreed, and duly liked her post. “A great step forward for women,” someone else tweeted.
Well, possibly. Mayer’s sex should, of course, be irrelevant, but when only 18 of the Fortune 500 companies (the top-ranked firms in the US) are headed by women, it would be naïve to think her appointment would not be examined through the gender filter. But a great step forward for women? I’m not sure. Because there’s one other thing about Mayer, which may have passed you by. She is six months pregnant.
Speaking to Fortune magazine in an interview timed to go out with the job announcement, Mayer airily remarked: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
I really wish she hadn’t said that. I really wish that a woman of my generation, with all the advantages of being a young woman in today’s more enlightened society, who, as one of Google’s first 20 employees and its first female engineers, has clearly worked her backside off in the professional world to get to where she is, hadn’t said that she was only taking a “few weeks” of maternity leave and that she would be working “throughout it”.
It is understandable, of course, that Mayer wants to hit the ground running. What person, male or female, pregnant or not, doesn’t want to make a good impression their first few weeks into a job, whether they’re collecting the bins or heading up a multi-national company?
All eyes will be on Mayer. Taking on Yahoo! involves turning round an ailing company that many are expecting to fail. It would be a daunting task at the best of times.
But to brush pregnancy, birth and maternity leave aside in the kind of way that, well, a man might, will not do her, her contemporaries or her company any good in the long term.
Motherhood isn’t like a stock option that you can toss aside when the returns suddenly don’t seem so promising. It is not a minor, temporary inconvenience that will disappear once you get used to it. It is a radical change in life that many women, even smart, successful ones like Mayer, hugely underestimate.
This is not, of course, to say mothers should not work. Of course they should, and many do. But to state that you will only be taking a few weeks maternity leave and that you will be working through it is at best naïve, and at worst stomping all over the rights of women who have fought for years to be able to take the time away from paid employment in order to care for and bond with their newborn child, and know that when they return, their job will still be there for them.
In short, in an attempt to prove herself up to the job of running a multi-national company, Mayer is hoping to outsource motherhood itself. She was recently estimated to be worth $300 million and can probably afford top-notch childcare. It’s just a shame she feels the need to do so, instead of using her position to carve out a work/life balance by taking her full maternity leave, embracing her dual roles as CEO and mother, and becoming a positive example.
Instead, her actions damage every other ambitious professional woman (not least the ones in her own company) who wishes to take time to be with her child and keep her high-ranking job. But this is the choice Mayer has made. And if equality is about anything, it should be about the ability to make these choices.
I just hope, for her sake and for the sake of her child, it is not a choice she lives to regret.
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