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Does it Matter if Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Takes Maternity Leave?

Marissa Mayer has been in the spotlight this week after being named the new CEO of Yahoo Inc. and also announcing that she is pregnant. These two announcements have come with a lot of discussion about maternity leave in the United States.

Mayer has already announced that she will only stay home from the office for a few weeks and that she'll be working the whole time. Some people have started questioning her decision and asking what it means for professional women who also want a family.

On the one hand, very few women are named CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.  On Forbes Woman, Amy Keyishian notes that Mayer will become one of only 20 female CEOs among the Fortune 500 (4% of all CEOs). If Mayer accepts the job as CEO and then takes off to stay home with her baby for six months or a year, will that inspire other companies to name women as their CEOs or will it make them shy away from it?

On the other hand, people are saying that Mayer could be a role model for women and demonstrate that it is possible to balance a successful career as an executive with a family. Not by immediately returning to work, but instead taking some time off and showing that her career and the company can continue to thrive while she tends to her family.

But it is, of course, more complicated than that.

Just because Mayer could, as CEO, decide to take time off to be with her baby, doesn't mean it will be easier for a senior manager, a programmer, or a receptionist at Yahoo to do the same without it hurting their careers. She is, after all, the boss and can do what she wants as long as she continues to meet the expectations of shareholders and the board of directors. If Mayer were to take six months of maternity leave and, at the same time, announce that she is implementing a forward thinking corporate parental leave policy at Yahoo, that might make a difference. Or if Mayer were to decide she was going to open a day care on site at Yahoo, so her baby could be close to her during the day, and she also made that day care available at a subsidized rate to all Yahoo employees, that might make a difference. Her choices as an individual are inconsequential compared to the impact her choices as a boss and leader could have.

Mayer, of course, has a great deal of privilege. If she decides to hire a nanny, she has the means to do so. If she decides to bring her baby to work, no one is going to stop her. The people who really need change are those who are at risk of losing their jobs if they ask for time off, the ones who cannot afford child care but also cannot afford to quit their jobs, the ones who cannot ask for an afternoon off for a special event in their child's life or for a doctor's appointment. Those women need more than just an executive role model taking a few months off. They need true change to the system in a way that protects their job while also giving them the means to care for their family.

The other important issue here is one of gender. If Mayer takes maternity leave, that might make others reluctant to hire women CEOs who are in their childbearing years. However, if male CEOs start taking paternity leave, that has the potential to shake things up a bit and even the playing field, demonstrating that it isn't just women of child bearing age that are at risk of abandoning their corporate responsibility when a baby comes along.

I am thrilled to see another woman CEO and while Mayer's choices are not the same as my choices (I took some maternity leave with both children, although not as much as the Canadian norm since I shared it with my partner), I don't think her personal decisions are going to be significantly consequential one way or another for the maternity leave and child care agenda in the United States. If she took a corporate or political stance on those issues, it may have a chance of making an impact.

What do you think? Do Marissa Mayer's personal choices about maternity leave matter to the feminist agenda?
« Making Jen's Day... | Main | A Cocktail of Judgment for Moms? »

Reader Comments (23)

I read this morning that she negotiated a $71 million dollar pay package...so no, her situation matters very little to the issue. Her privilege mediates a great deal of challenges that most working women experience.

My issue with her comments were that a) it's hard to predict what life is like after the baby so she was being very presumptive (although who isn't?) and that b) by stating that she was taking only a couple of weeks and working through it that others would hold THAT as the standard.

I'll be interested to see what news comes out after the baby arrives.

I have to say I was a bit dismayed by this story. It's great that she was hired while pregnant, but at what cost? I can't imagine dropping a 2 week old off with a nanny. For me it would be heart breaking. And what kind of message does this give to other women striving for the top? You can have kids but must forgo mat leave? I think the better outcome would have been for Yahoo to have hired her, and for a mutual understanding that some time off after birth is good for both Mom and child. As a Canadian I am gratefull everyday for my mat leave, and although obviously she is extremely careerist, i still find it surprising that she wouldn't want to spend even a couple weeks with no work responsibilities to bond with her child. Of course, we don't know if working from home followed by in the office was part of the deal but I assume it was ultimately her decision.

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

She should do what she feels is in the best interest of her family and her career - both of which are her (& her partner's) decisions, only. THAT is forwarding the "feminist agenda" - having choices available and doing what needs to be done - regardless of your gender or parenting status.

Suggesting that she might advocate to take 6 months or a year off from work is a bit outlandish, particularly in the US - that length of maternity leave isn't anywhere near the norm here, regardless of position. But due to her position, it's simply not reasonable. She's a CEO; being hired to RUN the company. The head of a company, regardless of wo/man, or parenthood, doesn't take 6 months off; particularly not of a brand-new job. If she wants the job, she's certainly not applying for or taking it without laying out her post-baby plan - I'm sure she & Yahoo were aware of the pregnancy and the impending baby while in the negotiation stages; and a few weeks off, working from home sounds reasonable to me as the head of a company. By nature, it's not a part time job, it's not consulting, it's not an easily replaceable position, it's not freelance, set-your-own-hours type of work. It's demanding and she needs to be present.

As an aside, I'd be surprised if there wasn't on-site childcare at Yahoo; do you know that there isn't?

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Well...to be glib, at Yahoo it is an easily replacable position, 5 CEOs in 5 years :) Also, Yahoo partners with local organizations to set up childcare arrangements but according to information I found, there is no on-site location.

Not everyone has the option of a lengthy maternity leave.

Not everyone has the desire for it.

As a business owner myself, I worked up until the evening before I went into labor with my first child, and as soon as I came home from the hospital, I was working from home. Admittedly, I had the privilege to keep baby with me at work, take long lunches, nap with baby. As such, I didn't desire weeks off with no responsibilities. I loved having my baby with me; I loved working. We also had a wonderful, caring, nanny who practiced attachment parenting. Nannies aren't necessarily strangers, nor cause for dismay. I breastfed my children into their preschool years. I don't think going back to work right after baby is necessarily a measurable "cost" nor does it necessarily inhibit bonding with your baby.

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

I agree that she should do what she feels is in the best interest of her career and family. I don't think that is forwarding the feminist agenda though. I think that is profiting from the feminist agenda. To be clear, I don't mean that in a negative way. I think it is great that so many of us can profit from the work of second generation feminists and make those types of choices.

I don't think she needs to advocate for maternity leave of six months to a year. My point was that if she was to take that type of leave (which she has said she won't), then I don't think her personal choice to do so would be advancing the feminist agenda. If she were to create or support a policy that made it possible for women and men to take that type of leave, that would be forwarding the feminist agenda. Would it be difficult when she is fresh in a new and demanding job? Absolutely. Is it important that someone do it? Absolutely.

Ultimately, my point is that the choices of someone with considerable privilege are not going to significantly change the reality facing so many women in the United States who feel that they do not have choices. That will take something else altogether.

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I've often said that http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/08/08/flexible-maternity-leave-parental-leave/" rel="nofollow">I wish our mat leave in Canada was more flexible. With my first child, I absolutely needed the time at home focusing just on him during those early weeks. He didn't sleep for long stretches and he had trouble nursing, so I was pumping around the clock. It was grueling and difficult and important that I be there with him and focused on him. With my daughter, everything came easily. I've often said that if I didn't also have my son at home with me while I was on maternity leave with her, I could have worked full time for the first six months with her nursing and sleeping in the sling. In fact, I would have loved to have returned to work and instead been able to take my leave from 12 months to 18 months, when she was more active.

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

No. If I'm answering the post's question, that is my answer. I don't know why we have to personalize this issue so much. I think it's great that a female has ascended the ranks into this amazing position that I am not the least bit envious of having. I think it's great she's going to be a mom! ("WOW! Mazel! You're having a baby!") What is lacking is trust. I believe in order for the female cause/feminism/whatever you want to call it to advance, we have to trust our fellow sisters to know how to handle their lives. When we question them, we chip away at their power and make ourselves look jealous, spiteful, and bitter. Mayer is old enough and smart enough to make decisions for herself. If she believes she can manage this, we owe it to her to try. If she phones in 8 days after she has this baby and is crying, curled up in the fetal position because she never wants to leave her baby, then we should have compassion for her instead of saying, "I told you so." If she hires a nanny and a car service to bring the baby to her office at lunch time so they can bond, cool. If she builds a guest house so her mom/aunt/sister/nanny/baby nurse can be there indefinitely for her, then let's just chalk it up to her building her village.

Sure. It's easy to say she has no idea what she's getting into. I bet she also has no idea what she's getting into as CEO of Yahoo. Maybe having a child will make her more compassionate toward other female members of her organization who have children and have missed meetings because of high fevers or pediatric emergencies.

I just don't think we need to dramatize everything and wring our hands about whether she's damaging or furthering a cause. She's a woman. She has a job. Let her go to work.

July 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterliv

To some extent, yes...she is just a woman that has a job and is pregnant. But whether she likes it or not, how she handles the balance between pregnancy and being a CEO WILL set the tone for how others in the corporate world interpret this balance. She is a pioneer. If she thinks that other boards aren't paying attention, then she's naive. She will be scrutinized--if she makes a bad decision at Yahoo, I can assure you some folks will say "Mommy Brain."

I wish more women in her position would publicly acknowledge how their experiences are positioned within the larger societal context. She will be judged differently than her male counterparts.

My situation would have been the reverse of yours. My older daughter took pumped milk from a bottle well, and though she missed me when I was away, she was pretty content in my absence. My younger one WOULD NOT take a bottle, wouldn't stay happy even when my husband took a month of paternity leave after I went back to work, showed no interest in solid food until close to 11 months old and has always been a light and restless sleeper who knows when I'm not there. If I had been able to afford taking six months off with her, I would have done it in a heartbeat. With my older one, things were pretty good the way they were, and I was content to be back at work. Flexibility would have been very helpful. That would have included allowing me to change my plans, because I thought things were going to work just the way they had before.

July 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie B.

I think your points are great. So many people are saying how she doesn't know what she's getting into, or stating she's only taking a few weeks off is setting a bad example for other woman who want more time off. I really feel for women with no maternity leave...those who have no choice but to return to work after a few weeks to a job that maybe barely covers daycare. She will have much more flexibility than most, can afford to take her nanny on business trips and bring her to the office. Her job will be demanding yes, but she chose this and is getting ample compensation. I hope she does well, and I would love to see her set a great example of work-life balance at her company, by making that part of the culture, with onsite/affordable daycare, as you mentioned, or talking about it in employee meetings. Our old CEO never held a single all-employee meeting without stressing the importance of work-life balance, getting exercise, taking time with your family. Our current executive group acts like we should all be lucky to have jobs and better work those extra hours.

July 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I just remember that I planned to only take "two weeks off" when I had my first baby. I had NO FMLA or sick days so every single day off was a threat to my job. But the minute the baby came, I realized IMMEDIATELY that I - the self-proclaimed career driven feminist - could in no way shape or form tolerate leaving my brand new baby so soon. I had to go back at 5.5 weeks, and it completely ate me up. I went back to work after 12 weeks with my second son, and that ate me up as well. I went back to school just 6 DAYS after giving birth to my daughter, and that was COMPLETELY okay with me because I could bring her with me to class and nurse her while I took exams. But if I'd been forced to leave her completely for a whole day THAT early? It would have wrecked me. All I wonder is if Yahoo's CEO will change her mind about how much time she wants off after she actually meets her baby. Parenthood changes people in ways we just cannot predict before the baby's actually in our lap.

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTheFeministBreeder

Every situation is different. Yahoo is a company that is very obviously struggling, and they need a strong and present and visible CEO. When companies are hiring for a role like that, they cannot afford to hire someone who is going to be gone straight away for six months. Mayer also knew that when she was negotiating for the job, so she made her choice. It's going to be tremendously difficult for her and I wish her every strength and luck to get through it all, but in the end, it's her choice and we should be supporting her as we should be supporting any mom.

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzchamu

The people who really need change are those who are at risk of losing their jobs if they ask for time off, the ones who cannot afford child care but also cannot afford to quit their jobs, the ones who cannot ask for an afternoon off for a special event in their child's life or for a doctor's appointment. Those women need more than just an executive role model taking a few months off. They need true change to the system in a way that protects their job while also giving them the means to care for their family.

Those PEOPLE need more. Not just women. All parents, whether they are biological mothers, adoptive mothers, lesbian partners of biological mothers, fathers, stepparents, etc., deserve a system in which they can negotiate time off for their children's special events and doctor's appointments. My father worked full-time throughout my childhood but attended nearly all my special events, and after my mother returned to work and her job required a lot of travel, my father was more likely to be the one taking me to the doctor, picking me up when I got sick in school, and taking a long lunch break every sick day to check on me. (I got sick a LOT as an older child and teen--bad tonsils!) That was 25 years ago. Fathers of my generation are on average more involved in parenting than fathers of the past and deserve flexibility as much as mothers.

That said, of course there's something special about maternity leave. Recovering from giving birth is a physical and mental health matter, distinct from the need to bond with and care for the new baby. Biological mothers deserve, at the bare minimum, 6 weeks off with half pay. That doesn't necessarily mean zero responsibility for the job during those weeks. Kelly has a good point about the demands of a CEO's job--but an important trait of managers is the ability to delegate, so I think even a new CEO could cut back to one meeting a week and checking e-mail twice a day for 6 weeks while others do the work she delegated before her leave.

Marissa Mayer's ambitious plans remind me of the conversation I had with the receptionist in my office when I called to say my baby had been born. She was a mother of grown children. She said, cheerfully, "Well, we'll see you in March, then!" I said, "Oh, I'll be in there sooner! I'll bring the baby to visit, and Rolf will want me to proofread the manuscript, and--" She interrupted me: "Honey, don't. This is your time. This 12 weeks is all the time you get to put all your soul into being Mom. Don't let even a moment of it be taken from you." I thought of her words often in the first week, as I discovered that between my son's sleeping difficulties and his jaundice treatment and my recovering from excessive blood loss, I was too busy and tired even to check my personal e-mail. Things got easier after that, but I still didn't feel there was space to do anything for work except to answer the occasional quick but crucial question by phone. (I think they called me just twice.) It wasn't until about the 10th week that I started to feel my old powers returning. So I hope that Marissa Mayer will arrange things so that they can manage with very little input from her for at least a couple of weeks and then she can come back gradually as she feels able. Perhaps she is a superwoman who will recover very quickly, and perhaps she'll have a calm and healthy baby, but I hope she's prepared for alternatives.

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

@Kellynaturally, please don't describe maternity leave as "weeks off with no responsibilities". Caring for a baby, especially a newborn, is an enormous responsibility. If you were paying someone else to look after your baby for those weeks you would not describe that person as having no responsibilities, or treat them as though they were having a holiday. It does not make sense to describe a mother as having no responsibilities if she cares for the baby herself.

Perhaps you only meant that you did not want to give up your business responsibilities in the early weeks after your baby was born, but the way you expressed it is open to misinterpretation.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFran

I just hope her announcement doesn't lead to an expectation that women in business publicly proclaim their intentions for maternity leave (or lack thereof) ahead of time-I think that might be bad for maternity leave in America in general. Otherwise, I think her announcement is probably only bad for her own company. I would sure be worried if I was working for Yahoo that I would be expected to have a similarly quick return to the company, but I know based on the birth of my son that it wouldn't likely be physically possible for me. I think it would have been more prudent to announce something like, "So far my pregnancy is going wonderfully and I'm hoping for a quick recovery. I'll be back at Yahoo as soon as my doctor and I feel I'm ready, and I plan on working from home (and I'll of course be available by phone and e-mail) within a few days of giving birth." Anyway, I think that announcing that she intends to voluntarily return sooner than required sets a bad precedent for other women in the company who will worry if it will reflect negatively on them to take the entire time allotted off much more so than just actually doing it and being like "I have been lucky enough to have a wonderful quick recovery and a great support team at home, so I'm able to come back earlier than anticipated!" would.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

I was quoting Michelle, above, and indeed accidentally left out a word: WORK:

"i still find it surprising that she wouldn’t want to spend even a couple weeks with no work responsibilities to bond with her child."

Within the context of my response (and the comment to which I was responding) though, I think my message was relatively clear - I didn't desire weeks off with no work responsibilities.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

[...] ensued and admittedly I reacted badly myself until I read Annie from PhD in Parenting’s post where she poses the question “does it matter if Marissa Mayer takes maternity leave?”. [...]

Each woman's choices help shape the culture in which we all live, birth, and parent. Because she is so visible Marissa Mayer has the chance to do something amazing with her choices. Perhaps she will allow stepping into motherhood to change her perspective - the hardest thing for anyone to change. Yes opening affordable day care at Yahoo might help other mothers stay more connected with their children while still making money. Yet how much more amazing would it be if Mayer's new motherhood allowed her to have a much broader and longer-term perspective? What if it causes her to question deeply into the legacy she's leaving her child, the state of the world, and the ongoing consumption of an industrial growth society? What if she changes her actions as CEO based on this new perspective?

Now that would be pretty amazing.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKassandra Brown

I think her situation is very much different than many other Mothers. Her wealth will make certain things a bit more easier. However at the same time being a CEO is not like working a regular 9-5 job.

Another thing to factor in is the way mat leave works in the US. It is very much different than here in Canada. I know many Moms who go back to work very early in the States, while here I am going back after 8.5 months and apparently that is short

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I agree to an extent. But it brings up another issue - a prominent pregnant CEO, when will that happen again and is their a different choice that a different pregnant CEO could make besides going straight back to work. I'm pretty sure in the US that the 'choice' Marissa is making is really the only perceived option in her position. It brings to mind Slaughter's article on the lack of flexibility in the workplace for family time for women moving up the ranks.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

I think that her position of privilege does indeed make things different for her than for other women. One thing I haven't read on this story, though, is what role her partner plays in the care of the child. For all I know, s/he may be taking time off or being the more accommodating one. Parental leave need not be a "woman's issue"; to me, it's everybody's issue and whatever works for her family - or any family - is their decision to make.

I'm pregnant right now, and though I live in Canada, I am self-employed and will not qualify for self-employed EI until about 8 weeks after the birth. I have contractual work until at least 13 weeks after the due date and will have to work at least part-time during this time as I have obligations to meet that cannot be broken/changed/made more flexible. However, my partner will be taking a few weeks of parental leave (we can't afford for him to stay home longer than a month or two) to help ensure that I can meet my commitments. After that, we hope to be able to afford to hire someone to help out 1-2 days a week while I work from home so that my work gets done as family support is probably not a viable option. It is a difficult decision to make and a scary position to be in knowing that I will not be able to take more than a few days off after giving birth, but not meeting contractual obligations could very easily get me sued and also decimate my chances of working again in my industry, thus jeopardizing my ability to care for this child in the future. Luckily, the support of my partner and his (albeit limited) chances to take some parental leave will help to fill the gap and help us all adjust.

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlaura

Annie Marie Slaughter wrote an amazing piece about women and having it all. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-8217-t-have-it-all/9020/. She gave up an amazing opportunity working with Hillary Clinton because of her family. She summarized that when woman can have it all is when they able to create a work environment on their own terms. I hope Marissa makes this happen by providing a daycare center, extended leave options/flex schedules, telecommuting or whatever so companies can learn how important it is to retain women in the work place.

I left practicing law since it was just too hard raising a family and relying on help.

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna@GreenTakl

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