Is Marissa Mayer's Maternity Leave Decision Bad For Women?

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
It's no surprise there's so much controversy surrounding Marissa Mayer's Tumblr announcement that she and her husband are expecting twins this winter — and that she would only be taking two weeks of maternity leave. As one of just 23 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Mayer's every move — both personal and professional — is scrutinized.

The Internet exploded with think pieces this week, with a lot of writers decrying the criticism of Mayer. Dan Primark's Fortune column, "Stop Telling Marissa And Zuck How To Parent," was dismissive of the public's need to be "armchair nannies." CNN commentator Mel Robbins called for everyone to back off:
"Mayer's not sending a message, she's just living her life — in her case, one that includes having twins and running a Fortune 500 company," she writes. "Netflix just announced up to a year of paid parental leave benefits. Do you really expect its CEO, Reed Hastings, to take advantage of it? I didn't think so."

Male CEOs definitely don't face the same scrutiny as women, though it will be interesting to see if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will take any time off around the birth of his first child. There have been many high-profile men and women who've taken extensive parental leave, including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who wrote about her experience in The Wall Street Journal last spring on the eve of her fifth maternity leave. Wired notes that Etsy's CEO took off nine weeks when he adopted a son and Toms' founder took 12 weeks of leave when his son was born.

Mayer was widely criticized after the birth of her first child, when she took a similarly short leave. At the time, she had only been CEO of Yahoo for three months and it's reported that she set up a nursery in the office. Nine months after the birth of her son, she expanded Yahoo's parental leave policy: 16 weeks for maternity leave and eight weeks of paternity leave. Expansion of parental leave policies has become commonplace at tech companies looking to retain employees: Microsoft, Google, Netflix, and Adobe all offer similar benefits. But when Mayer doesn't take the full leave offered, what kind of message does it send to her employees? And why does she not recognize her privilege while acknowledging the millions of U.S. workers who have no access to paid leave.

We repeat the facts and figures again and again because they are so shocking. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave. Only 13% of women in the private sector have access to paid leave. While the Family and Medical Leave Act is a start, it's unpaid and only applies to 50% of the female workforce (those who work full time and have been with their company for more than a year). Mayer has so many resources at her disposal, which makes returning to work after two weeks a choice, not a requirement. Many women are not so lucky: One in four are forced to return to work within two weeks of giving birth because they don't have paid leave.

In the end, it's a personal decision, but as a public figure and a female leader (whether or not she wants the role), it's inevitable that people will have an opinion on her decision. Ahead, 11 working women — mothers and non-mothers — weigh in with their thoughts on this controversial topic.
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In my ideal world, all new parents should be forced to take advantage of the full leave policy

"Turns out CEO moms are not like us! Marissa Mayer can do what she wants, but it's a fact that in this country, one in four American women returns to work within two weeks of giving birth — and that is very shameful. I understand the demands of her job, but it unfortunately creates the false sense that maternity leave is a fallacy. Women at Yahoo — and in tech in general — will internalize the message that if you really want to get ahead and stay at the top of your game, taking advantage of your company's generous leave policies is not acceptable. Why not show true leadership and set an example by taking the full leave and demonstrate that things won't fall apart if a parent chooses to spend time with their child?

"I also wish someone would ask her how her husband factors into this. Who knows? Maybe he's taking a year off and is super involved? I have zero clue, but I guess these decisions don't exist in a vacuum and having a spouse who can step up and fill in the gaps is a real privilege. Maybe it happens more than we know?

"In my ideal world, all new parents — men and women — should be forced to take advantage of the full leave policy afforded to them."

— Aminatou Sow, 30, digital consultant

What message Mayer sends out has impact on lots of lives.

"On one hand, it's easy to say, 'Marissa Mayer should make her own decisions and we’re not here to judge her.' On the other, Marissa Mayer is a public figure with a high-ranking position. What message she sends out has an impact on lots of other lives — so what she’s silent about also speaks volumes.

"Someone in Mayer's position has to be proactive about saying: 'Don’t interpret this to mean that we expect you to come back after two weeks. The reason we have the policy we do is so you’ll take it. I’m making my own adjustments, but I have resources many people don’t.' So you actually say that. And you understand that not saying that will be interpreted as, 'Yes, you can have the time, but boy will you be sorry if you use it.'

"My other concern is for the one in four employed women who give birth and go back to work within two weeks because they don’t have any money and they don’t have paid leave. I would have liked an affirmative statement [from Mayer]: 'We need to be aware that there’s an emergency in our country, of women needing to go back to work because they lack paid leave. We do our best at Yahoo to make sure that employees have access to paid leave, but we need to speak out because as a nation we need to do something.'"

— Ellen Bravo, executive director of FamilyValues@Work

If I'd had to go back to work in an office earlier than three months, I would have lost my entire mind.

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"I think about this all the time! What's most interesting to me is how much my feelings about it have changed since my son was born. Before I had a baby, I had some kind of inchoate thoughts about how women who didn't rush back to work were 'letting the side down' in some way. In general, I thought that the thing to strive for was to be as much like your pre-baby self and to have your life and work be as uninterrupted as possible.

"Now I look back on the person who had those thoughts with total incomprehension and scorn. Babies change every day — literally every day, they get bigger and do different things and encounter the world in new ways. They're also almost unimaginably needy and vulnerable. I left my son for six hours yesterday, the longest I've ever left him, and by the time I got home, I was near tears. Psychologically, it's hard to leave someone who, until so recently, was inside your body.

"By the time babies are a bit older, like three months old, it's a different situation, of course — they're ready to be a part of the world, to meet new people, and to be apart from their parents. But that time is SO fleeting and SO important. If I'd had to go back to work in an office earlier than three months, I would have lost my entire mind and I certainly wouldn't have been able to get any worthwhile work done. Breastfeeding also takes about three months to establish well — pumping for more than one feeding a day before then confuses your baby and your body a lot. As it is, I was able to go back gradually, and even that was — and is — hard.

"Countries with six months or a year of parental leave have it right. Emphasis on parental — dads and non-mom partners need this time, too. It's just such a short time in the grand scheme of people's lives and careers — employers and governments need to acknowledge that and allow new people to get the best start in the world possible."

Emily Gould, 33, writer

Mayer's own personal choice is setting the company culture.

"Ultimately, it's [Mayer's] decision how much time she takes off from work to spend with her newborns. But as a leader, particularly a woman, she becomes the example other employees look to in deciding how much parental leave to take. Studies repeatedly show that people, especially men, are more likely to take parental leave if a supervisor does so; Mayer's own personal choice is setting the company culture, whether or not that was her intention.

"A lot of the conversations have been about Mayer and her choice, rather than about workplaces and what family-friendly policies are in place to retain good employees. Yes, these family-friendly policies may disproportionately affect women, but more men are asking for — and taking — paternity leave. Rather than hammering Mayer for her decision and making baseless attacks about her parenting, it’s far more worthwhile to discuss why more companies don’t offer the same 16 weeks of maternity leave that Yahoo does."

— Rebecca Gale, 35, author of the Hill Navigator column at Roll Call

We should all just mind our own business.

"I'm of two minds: Mayer should be able to take off as much, or as little, parental leave as she wants. She is an individual who has free will and she should be able to work and parent as she sees fit, without judgment. Moms receive too much judgment across the board from others on their parenting decisions. On the other hand, Mayer is a very visible mom and female executive. She can set the tone for what other female professionals do or feel pressured to do. I think that as long as Mayer's decision is her own and doesn't affect the very personal decisions of others who may want to take time off to be with their newborns, then we should all just mind our own business."

— Jennifer Prestogiacomo, 34, corporate communications
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it sets a very unrealistic expectation for other working mothers.

"I'm currently less than four weeks into my maternity leave, and I can't imagine going back to work this soon. However, if I had Marissa Mayer's resources and responsibilities, maybe it would make sense. With lots of hired help, I imagine she'll be better rested than most new parents, which would make a world of difference. She'll surely have someone to care for her other child, she might have a night nurse to help with the newborn, and she probably has someone to cook and clean for her family — maybe even a driver to take her to and from work. So it's a lot easier for her to return to work so soon.

"Yes, it's a personal decision, and we shouldn't judge her for it. However, I can see how parents would worry that it sets a very unrealistic expectation for other working mothers. Two weeks is simply not enough leave for the vast majority of moms!"

— Laura Fenton, 35, lifestyle director at Parents Magazine

The responsibility is on millennial women to drive the conversation around parental leave forward.

"If you had asked me what I thought of this before my daughter was born, I'm not sure what I would have said. Up until a few weeks before my due date, I was planning to take five weeks off. (I'm not really sure how I came up with that number, but I've always loved working and it was something I felt comfortable with.) Then, every single mother I talked to told me I was completely insane for going back so quickly unless I absolutely had to. I didn't. In the end, I ended up taking 12 weeks and I wouldn't trade them for anything. It was exhausting, surreal, and absolutely wonderful getting to spend that much time with my family, as a family. And unless circumstances change, it's also the only time in my daughter's entire life when the three of us will have that much uninterrupted bonding time. It's kind of heartbreaking when you really think about it. (It's also worth noting that two weeks in, I was in no shape to be in an office environment. At that point, showering and making a Duane Reade run in the same day still posed a challenge.)

"But that was me and my experience. I think it's incredibly unfair that such a personal decision ends up being so loaded with meaning simply because Mayer is a woman. I understand why people are frustrated — her behavior sets an example for other employees and maybe even women beyond Yahoo — but I think the responsibility is on millennial women to drive the conversation around parental leave forward, instead of fixating on the life choices of one very successful mother. If only people would get as angry about things like this."

— Caroline Stanley, 34, deputy editor, living and local markets at Refinery29

Society at large is not bugging new dads about taking too little paternity leave.

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"As a woman who doesn't have children and doesn't plan to, I tend to look on in detached horror as mothers dissect and denounce each other's personal choices. As far as I'm concerned, there's no right answer to whether two weeks, three months, or a year is the right amount of maternity leave for Marissa Mayer — I'm at an age where lots of my friends are starting to have kids and every one of them has had a different experience. Some are impatient to get back to work almost immediately and others would spend every moment of every day with their baby if they could afford it. So if Mayer's health and childcare situation permit her to go back to work early and that's what she wants to do, great. Certainly, society at large is not bugging new dads about taking too little paternity leave.

"That said, two things do worry me: the possibility that Mayer feels like she has to limit her time at home with her twins or risk looking like a weak leader; and the standard this sets for the women who work below Mayer, who shouldn't have to feel guilty (or worse) for taking more maternity leave than their boss."

—Judy Berman, 31, writer and editor

Women should not see having a baby or having a career as a choice.

"Women should not see having a baby or having a career as a choice. We, as a society, have worked hard to promote equality in the workplace. It is vital that women feel confident that they are valued and that their choice to become a mother is supported, regardless of their role in a business. The reaction to Marissa’s pregnancy announcement is incredibly disheartening. We should celebrate pregnancy and we should support new mothers in taking adequate maternity leave without fear of stigma or guilt.

"Similarly damaging is that other women, on seeing a negative reaction such as this, could be dissuaded from perusing motherhood for fear of losing their position at work and/or their employers’ respect."

— Ida Tin, CEO and founder of Clue

Will the employees at Yahoo really feel comfortable taking their full maternity leave?

"I don’t have kids, nor are kids in my immediate future. Yet, whenever there are stories or announcements about maternity leave, I pay attention. I can’t deny the decisions being made now are going to affect my future. When Yahoo announced they were giving 16-weeks maternity leave I considered that a moment of success. I have mixed feelings now. Will the employees at Yahoo really feel comfortable taking their full maternity leave if their boss takes only 12% of the allotted time? There isn’t one perfect length for a new parent leave. Everyone should look at their new parent leave for themselves and decide how much or how little leave they want to take based on their situation, support, and job — including Mayer.

"But the truth is, she is a leader in her field and a very prominent example of a successful woman in an industry still struggling with retaining female employees. So what message is Mayer giving to her employees, and all working parents, by deciding to limit her leave and publicly announcing it as she announced her pregnancy?

"Yahoo’s leadership is 77% male
, so there is a disproportionate amount of attention on her decision. That may not be fair, but it’s the world we live in. And I think it’s going to be harder for women to not feel guilt for not “taking limited time away and working throughout” their leave. I also think it’s going to be harder for senior leadership to not hold Mayer’s example as the model new parents should follow going forward. I believe that Mayer has built a strong team, but I think by refusing to take a break from work, she’s not only not showing her trust in that team, but hurting that team’s opportunities at deciding what is best for their future."

— Rebecca Smith, 25, audience development editor at Refinery29
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If she instituted the 16-weeks policy, she must be comfortable with people taking it.

"If she instituted the 16-week policy, she must be comfortable with people taking it. She understands that many women want to spend a decent amount of time with their children. The fact she's not opting to do so is a personal choice. I can see that it's setting a weird example for her employees, but they don't oversee the company. She can spare them for 16 weeks. As a CEO, she's demonstrated that she's really into face-time. She probably feels like she needs to be back in the office, just to be consistent.

"Plus, it's not like she's pretending that it's easy to go back after two weeks; the fact that she had a nursery installed next to her office indicates just how tough it is. There are plenty of women in situations who have to return to work immediately. I think if this sheds light on the difficulties associated with that, it's a good thing."

Jessie Rubinstein, 32; assistant professor, The Wharton School
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