Thursday, July 19, 2012

Baby in the Boardroom

On my way to stand in line for my lunch at Panera, I noticed a headline story gracing the cover of “USA Today.”  Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, just announced that she is pregnant.  More significantly, she announced that she isn’t planning to scale back her career on account of motherhood.  According to the article, Mayer plans to take a short maternity leave and even work from home during that leave.

It’s been a while since people have seriously argued that women cannot succeed in the workforce.  However, the idea that women have to choose between motherhood and career persists.  A woman can’t be a responsible mother and maintain the career trajectory she had before motherhood, or so popular perception would have us believe.  In fact, when discussing the issue of a pay gap between men and women, a frequently cited reason is that women often take time off of work when they have babies, chopping chunks of time out of their 20’s and 30’s to focus on family.  A career with baby-shaped holes carved in it isn’t going to “get ahead” as quickly as an uninterrupted career.

Curiously, no one expects fathers to take time off of work to focus on their families further than a couple of weeks’ vacation in the summer.   Fathers aren’t asked how much time they plan to take off of work when their children are born.  As far as the working world is concerned, fatherhood is something that can be accomplished during evenings and weekends.

Whenever people complain about the breaking down of the American family, the burden is often placed on the mother to quit work, to go take care of the house and the children.  Why does no one advise fathers to give up their career for their family?  Why does no one suggest that men have to choose between the two?

Marissa Mayer is a high-profile woman, making a very public decision about how work and motherhood are going to intersect in her life.  But in reality, women from the beginning of time have been faced with this very decision.  Women have always worked, whether it was on subsistence farms in agricultural societies, in factories from the beginning of industrialized society, in a high-rise corporate office, or in any other job across the world and through time.  And women have always been mothers.  Some women choose to drop out of the workforce and stay home, considering mothering their most important calling at that point in their lives.  Others choose to continue their careers, splitting their time like men do between work and family.  Still others, perhaps most women who have ever faced this choice, really have no choice at all: they must work in order to pay for food and housing (these women are the women I particularly think of when people try to foist a guilt trip on working mothers – they are best serving their family by leaving the home, and all the moralizing in the world about traditional family structure should be ashamed in the face of their real moral fiber).

It makes me sad that the career/family question is constantly cast as a women’s issue.  It’s not: it’s a human issue, a question that men and women alike should face.  Traditional cultural expectations shouldn’t give men a shortcut out of this weighty question, nor place an undue burden on women.

I hope that by opening up discussion about careers and parenthood, Mayer’s decision will help continue the process of cultural acceptance of working mothers.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, especially to assist single mothers who work to support their families.  But one of the building blocks of truly constructive change is change in cultural perception.  

Show us how it’s done, Mayer, if you can break through the glass ceiling set so low for mothers, we'll have one more witness against all the voices that constantly say, "you can't do that."  Maybe you'll inspire women everywhere to step up and say, "too bad, haters, we're already doing it."

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