It seems the snowball started rolling with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement last September that she would take a shortened maternity leave of only two weeks. That sent the company’s shares diving, though. Why? Let’s try to figure this out.
Just to remind you, Marissa Mayer also left for a very short time after the birth of her first child in 2012, which was announced in conjunction with her initial appointment as the new CEO.
At the beginning of this month, Mayer told the world on Tumblr that she was expecting twins (mazal tov!) this December, and that she would be immediately back on the saddle within two weeks of the birth. In a post of just three short paragraphs, most of which focused on her obligations to her job, she succeeded in rekindling public debates about work-life balance, mothers’ business initiative, and the connection between the glass ceiling and the outflow of women from the high-tech world.
Some rushed to praise her on keeping work as an important part of her life after having children, serving as a captain not abandoning her ship for long and understanding the importance of her role.
But others criticized her decision; not everyone has the financial ability to do what she is doing. To them, it tramples on the feminist agenda stressing the value of maternity leave for newborns, something not to be cheapened or cut short. Others reminded her that a good manager builds a strong team that can take over in her absence.
The bottom line? Marissa Mayer, one of the most powerful women in high-tech, needed to set an example and make the most of her leave. Otherwise, what kind of mother would she be?
And so, her naysayers tisked.
To Mayer’s credit, we need to remember that the company she runs offers a (combined) 16-week maternity (and paternity) leave with full pay, so both mothers and fathers can get eight weeks off. So to say that she is striking out against women is a bit unfair.
But why is she leaving?
To understand why we judge Mayer so harshly or if you are at all interested in why she (apparently) chose to have her first kid at the late age of 37, we need to return to our original question: Why do women leave the high-tech world and turn to full-time motherhood? Why can’t we all be like Marissa Meyer?
For some it is clear: There is a gender bias that women endure in male-dominated workplaces. According to this school of thought, if a man and a woman of equal standing in the office both possess personal characteristics more often characterized as ‘male,’ the man will be viewed as more capable in that trait or skill. As a result, the chance that women will get promotions over male competitors is far lower. Finding it difficult to advance, they leave.
I don’t think this is necessarily the full picture. In my opinion, they leave because there is no other choice. Any equality between men and women in the high-tech world (as Inbal Orpaz eloquently put it) ‘inundates the discussion of women’s earning power in the industry.’ In my view, that means nothing can be done as long as women’s wages remain low and the tax czars don’t recognize childcare expenses as tax-deductible (despite court rulings to the contrary). Women in the tech are faced with two choices: give up their career aspirations for “less-intensive” roles or give up their dreams of having a family.
That’s how it appears to me and that is without a single word said regarding the subject of men in the family, who still earn more, and the unfortunate but logical financial decision that many women will leave their jobs and work full-time raising their families.
To balance or not to balance? That is the question
So what more can you do? In general, without emotional and financial support at home an entrepreneur cannot succeed; we all know that there is no such thing as “a balance between family and entrepreneurship.”
As I wrote recently in a Facebook post, the world of entrepreneurs can be far more demanding. In a regular salaried job, you have vacation days, sick days and, basically, you can manage your own time. Come in late? No problem. Be sick? You’ve got sick days. Leave early? Everything has its price, but no business will collapse because of these things.
But as a founder or an executive, you need to be on point all the time.
And as a parent? An entrepreneur and mother also needs (and I hope, wants) to be the one to bring her kids home from daycare. With these added pressures, your time as the leader of your workplace becomes even more valuable: But put simply, if you don’t work, you don’t succeed.
I don’t think there is a way to balance work and home life in the startup world without giving up something along the way, whether it be in terms of your conscience as a mother or as an entrepreneur at the helm of a startup. If you think for a moment that you can pull it off, once you announce you are investing more time in one or the other, it will never be enough for your detractors. The boundaries blur and everyone loses in this case. This is the same for both men and women.
Are you a Zuckerberg or a Mayer?
Just before Mayer, another Nasdaq-listed company also announced they were expecting a child: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. After three miscarriages, his wife Priscilla and he were confident they were finally expecting their first.
In an emotional post, they told their personal stories, sharing intimate and difficult details about the treatments they had gone through. Unlike Mayer, Zuckerberg did not focus on the technical details or the link between his work and the pregnancy, and just the emotional side. He did not discuss how much time he would be taking off work for paternity leave, instead only talking about the personal experience that accompanies parents.
At first this seems odd, but the glaring difference between his and Mayer’s announcements is precisely the difference between men and women: Women have to signal that things are business as usual while men are permitted to share their feelings and experiences without scrutiny.
Is the one single difference that she is actually having the baby and Zuckerberg is not? It seems to me not.
In contrast to Zuckerberg, Mayer chose to act within the framework of the masculinity pervasive throughout Silicon Valley. To her stockholders, this all sounds worrying. But for Facebook’s CEO, he may write whatever he wants. Investors don’t see his announcement as something that might shake the revenue of the company.
It is impossible to speak of equality without mentioning the shocking statement that echoed through the chambers of Silicon Valley, Apple, and Facebook regarding the possibility of financing the freezing of eggs. Doesn’t this merely perpetuate the situation? While it is touted as a solution to remove family as an obstacle to women’s aspirations, to derail childbearing is at the very root of the problem here: Why neutralize a woman’s physiology to let her compete with a man? Or perhaps we can let women bring kids into the world at a realistic and fertile age without hurting their position by supporting them in the workplace and at home? I think the answer here is clear.
“Work will always be there.”
Before I went on maternity leave, I was afraid of what might happen. I have managed Geektime for the last seven years. Anyone familiar with the world of startups knows well that they are babies themselves, which need a constantly watchful eye 24 hours a day – not to mention the money they require to keep going.
The reason I felt I could take my maternity leave was the fact that I have left responsible people and an awesome partner in charge who can navigate the seas (for a little while) without me. I have received support from my investors and those positive sentiments continue right now as I prepare to return. When they ask me about this, I love to quote one of the world’s most respected investors: “Take your time. Work will always be there.”
I couldn’t be Mayer – financially for sure – but as a first-time mother, it was important for me to play a meaningful part in my son’s life for the first few months and clearly going forward, while working. But I’m also not Zuckerberg. The fact that I am a woman and a mother will continue to be relevant in my decision-making for family and office matters.
What can we do in the interim? Until our politician friends come to their senses and help equate wages of women and break the glass ceiling blocking the appointment of women as directors and to other senior positions and smashing the myths hovering over the heads of female managers, we will need new, private companies that enable realistic work hours and flexibility for parents (not just women) and to steer a discourse that leads to a realization that female management is essential to a healthy company – with or without Marissa Mayer and with our without a full maternity leave. We need to do this in every way possible, with equal benefits and without sacrificing building a family.
Marissa Mayer chose to bring children into the world when 37, and then again when she was 40. What would have happened had she been pregnant at 25? Would this post have ever been written?
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