No Big Deal.
That’s my reaction to the news that Marissa Mayer is assuming the helm of Yahoo six months pregnant. I could opine about the inherent sexism of media interest in such a story, but that, too, is no big deal.
I’m betting Mayer (and Yahoo’s PR team) was prepared for the debate that her very public (now) pregnancy would trigger--we’re talking motherhood, power, and cultural priorities, after all. I was not prepared in 2001 when, at age 36, I was thrust from the position of lieutenant governor to governor of Massachusetts when Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada. I was eight months pregnant. With twins. I gave birth to my girls as governor. Then came the terror attacks of September 11th and the subsequent fiscal crisis in Massachusetts. If you don’t believe Marissa Mayer when she says she’ll work through maternity leave, consider that I chaired a meeting of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council via teleconference from my hospital bed.
But that was more than a decade ago. Like lightning heralding thunder, women and men, parenting or not, expect talking heads to stir society’s pot of unresolved family issues when a woman lands the big job.
So, here is a reality check: Marissa Mayer (like me) is not likely to emerge as a role model for everyday working parenthood. Her experience will in no way mirror the vast majority of mothers and fathers struggling to make ends meet and raise healthy, responsible kids. Sure, she will face the near daily Hobson’s choices that torture all working parents, like deciding between an important investor meeting and the school play. But barring the weeks directly after giving birth, a woman with a family in a powerful position like Mayer's doesn’t have it that much tougher than a man in a similar position precisely because she’s in that position. The job comes with significant resources will help make the day-to-day details, as well as life’s tougher challenges, well, less tough. And I begrudge her none of it--in fact I celebrate her success. It’s a positive step forward in a time when only 5% of American CEOs are women. That fact, not Mayer’s pregnancy and how she deals with maternity leave, is a bellwether.
What I do take issue with are social commentators who will attempt to extrapolate lessons of parenting success or failure from Mayer’s experience. Or use it to once again stir up contrived debates about the very personal choices that some small percentage of working women have. We’d all be better served discussing her business acumen, leadership skills, and management style (and while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the pejorative “Cupcake Princess” moniker). Attention devoted to this aspect of her life distracts us from solving the real problems faced by parents who work tirelessly without power, privilege, or means. It muddies the realities we need to face in order to ensure progress for mothers and fathers.
Think about this data point: In 1960, just over 25% of American women worked; that number is more than 70% today. And yet U.S. work-family policies have not been dramatically updated to reflect this stunning demographic leap. So, let’s spend time talking about expanding access to proven levers of economic success for these families: paid maternity leave, flexible employment opportunities up and down the economic ladder, more emphasis on critical education and career readiness, meaningful on and off ramps for parents who slow their careers to meet family obligations.
And let’s spend time talking honestly to our daughters--and sons--about the choices available to them. As a mother of three daughters, I feel a particular sense of urgency, especially as they approach their teenage and adult years. Frankly, a decade in, I still don’t get the “mommy wars” or the tired debate over whether women can “have it all.” I have yet to meet any women who think they’ve nailed it on the work-family front, even the lucky and successful ones. Certainly not the friend of mine who made the very hard decision to walk away from a very successful career in computer hardware sales to stay home with her children. She’s now working her way back in to a job at a much lower level a decade later as the mother to three teenagers. I'm no closer to figuring it out myself. Working mothers tend to focus on the sacrifices and the challenges, and I could outline many. Yet, while discussing the ramifications of choices ranging from “go hard, go fast, go high” or “stay at home,” I hope we can also remember to discuss the enormous satisfaction of having both a full, loving family life and a rewarding, demanding professional life. One of the conscious decisions I have made in talking to my own daughters is to, yes, admit how much I miss them on business trips and how terrible I feel when I miss a field hockey game or a musical performance; but I also let them know how much I love my job and how fortunate I am to do meaningful work that improves our education system.
I’ve been lucky. In the last year, I was once again offered a fabulous but demanding job (which I took). Just as my girls were born at the worst possible time for my political career, taking the job as CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages at the dawn of my children's teen years was not the best timing, which is why I am pretty sure there is never a perfect time for a big job if you are an ambitious woman who is pregnant or parenting.
Which brings me back to Marissa Mayer. She is certainly facing challenges, and not just in the nursery. She is Yahoo’s fifth CEO in the past year and is taking over at a time of significant upheaval in the digital media markets and the economy as a whole. While she may not be a bellwether for working parents, Yahoo can still be a bellwether for the economy, with $19 billion in market capitalization and tens of thousands of jobs in the balance.
Her success will be our success, but not because she is a mother; rather, because she is a successful force in the tech industry who opens doors for other smart, ambitious women like herself. And that will be a big deal.
Jane Swift served as Governor of Massachusetts from 2001-2003. She was the first governor in the nation to give birth in office. In her 10-year career in Massachusetts politics, she also served as Lt. Governor and a state senator. Today, Swift is the CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages in Middlebury, Vermont. Swift currently serves on the boards of Suburban Propane (SPH), Sally Ride Science, and the External Women’s Advisory Network for Deloitte. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts with her husband and their three children.
[Image: Flickr user Mark Stosberg]
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