This week, new YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki revealed in an interview with Re/code that she is expecting her fifth child in December. As she recently told Fast Company, work and motherhood are inextricably linked for her, and she associates each of her children with a milestone at Google, where she was employee number 16.
“I joined Google when I was pregnant, so my oldest I’ve associated with Google. Then I worked with the team and together we created AdSense after I came back from maternity leave (with my second). My third one, I associate with [the acquisition of] YouTube. The last one is DoubleClick.” Number five, then, is connected to her rise to the top of the biggest online video platform on the planet.
In a country with no national paid family leave policy and a terrible record for supporting new parents in the workplace, Google’s leave policy is outstanding. As of 2007, Google offers up to 22 weeks of paid leave for new mothers, who can accrue bonus and other rewards during maternity leave; 12 of these weeks are for “baby bonding,” and are offered to new fathers as well as mothers. The average maternity leave in the U.S. is 10 weeks, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, but up to half of working mothers are taking half of that or less, as it is often unpaid.
Wojcicki didn’t tell Re/code how much time she plans to take, saying only that “I’ve already had four maternity leaves, and I’ve taken different amounts of time off with my four kids, depending upon both my personal and work [life].”
Whatever Wojcicki does, it will be a big deal, even though she has personal and professional privileges to help her make the best decision for her family and company that most American women do not–a fact of which she is presumably well aware. Hers will be the highest-profile maternity leave since Marissa Mayer’s last year, when the Yahoo CEO took only two weeks before returning to work, and then took criticism for building a nursery next to her office while eliminating a work-from-home option for Yahoo employees. Soon after, Mayer doubled paid family leave for new moms and dads at Yahoo, to 16 and eight weeks respectively.
Whether Wojcicki goes back to work immediately or takes advantage of her own company’s relatively generous leave policy, many will be eager to see what tone she sets with the leave, particularly where women in top positions are concerned.
Anywhere there are working parents, family leave is a hot topic–including at Fast Company. I myself am about to go on paid maternity leave here, after a short, unpaid leave with my first child at a different company. After the Re/code story was released, I had a Google Hangout with senior editor Erin Schulte (veteran of two maternity leaves) and development director Aaron Miller, who just returned from two weeks of leave after his son Emerson was born, to discuss some of the possible implications of Wojcicki’s upcoming leave.
Erin Schulte: Aaron, first, congrats on the new baby.
Evie Nagy: This is your first?
Aaron Miller: First one.
Nagy: You’re in the acid trip phase.
Schulte: I have two. It gets easier. In, like, six months, ha. Even in three.
Nagy: Yeah, I think I turned a corner at three months.
Schulte: Just when you have to go back to work…which is what we are here to talk about! One thing I thought was interesting about the Wojcicki news was that when the news of Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy came out, the Internet blew up–like oh no, the world might end if a CEO takes maternity leave! This passed almost without mention. (Well, until this story.) It’s like Marissa broke the glass ceilings of maternity leave and everyone can now accept that the world does not end if women go on leave.
Nagy: Right, but at the same time she only took two weeks, which is like a regular vacation.
Schulte: Good point, Evie. Although, nobody knew how may weeks she would take. My guess is that was her own preference, not Yahoo pressuring her to only take two weeks, although of course that’s just speculation.
Nagy: Oh, definitely.
Miller: It’s interesting though when you consider the exclusive focus on the mother. In my mind it’s always a joint effort and all the initial burden shouldn’t fall only on the mom.
Schulte: Totally. Remember when Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets took two days’ leave and everyone went crazy? Over two days!
Miller: The media really focuses in on maternity leave–it’s also important to look at how the responsibility can better be shared.
Nagy: Absolutely. Most dads need to use vacation and sick time to be at home after a birth.
Schulte: Aaron, do you wish you would have taken longer than two weeks? Our company policy is that new fathers can take up to four paid weeks.
Miller: Two weeks was a good start. I like the fact I can break it up a bit here. I’m thinking now I may break up my second two weeks. My wife is kind of freaked out by the idea of her last 6-8 weeks of leave being alone with Emerson all day.
Nagy: This brings up the main theme that I was thinking about, which is the element of choice. I know that if I lived in a country with, say, a year of paid leave, I would still go back to work within six months for personal reasons. But the issue for so many people is an absolute lack of choice, which is what I’ve had in the past as well.
Miller: Yes, choice is really important.
Nagy: Even the choice to break it up, etc. What Susan Wojcicki said about making the best decision for her family and work is absolutely what she should do, and if that means going back sooner than Google allows, I would totally understand that. But it’s a choice that most people can’t even dream of.
Schulte: As more women come into the C-suite, this discussion around maternity leave is going to be happening more and more. It would be amazing if it forced some kind of national move to mandate paid leave for all women and some sort of parental leave for new fathers as well. Is that a pipe dream?
Nagy: I don’t think it’s a pipe dream, but right now it’s still such an anomaly to have women in those positions.
Miller: Yes. What I’d like to see is more companies like Fast Company and tech-oriented companies recognizing the importance of their employees’ family obligations in ways that matter.
Nagy: Google’s female employee attrition was cut in half when they extended leave. And research on California’s policies show that they’ve had a stabilizing effect on the economy and workforce.
Schulte: There are metrics like that that you can point to, but if the success of it for companies is so clear-cut, why are most corporate leave policies so terrible?
Nagy: Not to mention our federal policies, in comparison to every other industrialized nation. I think it goes along with our overall work culture. We don’t get vacation either. There are two things: 1) our national workplace culture of more=better, 2) the association of family leave with women, who have less power in the workforce.
Miller: There has to be an assumption that employees are worthy long-term investments and not just replaceable assets.
Schulte: It would be nice to think all companies thought of their employees that way, but it is truer in certain industries than others.
Miller: True. Getting rid of the equation of maternity with disability would help, too. It should be up to the employer, not their disability insurance provider. My wife’s leave had to be “approved” by the (insurance company).
Nagy: There is a small element of maternity leave that is related to recovery and genuine disability, and for some women it is more than others, but that should not be the driving category. Because what that says is, “can you physically put your butt at your desk? do it.”
Schulte: I like how Google refers to a 12-week chunk of the leave as “baby bonding.” It acknowledges that leave is not just for physical recovery. Maybe what we need to be advocating for is not “maternity leave” but “baby bonding” time. Maybe an update of the language would help us think about this in a new way. Google, innovating HR speak!
Miller: On the male side, it’s nice that some places offer paternity leave, but that distinction is still a problem, and so is the public perception of it. Men can do no wrong by being away for a while–but when C-level women do it, the shareholders all tremble.
Nagy: Even something like “care of a newborn” would be better. I can see opponents of family leave laws seeing “baby bonding” as a “luxury,” even though it’s vitally important.
Miller: It should be “baby time.”
Schulte: “Newborn care” is a good one. Or maybe “infant care.”
Miller: The precedent set by the Hobby Lobby case is actually scary when you consider the future of this kind of problem.
Nagy: You mean like, if a company decides that their religious beliefs dictate that a woman should not work, or something?
Miller: Hobby Lobby won that case about birth control and the ruling basically said that a corporation is allowed a moral judgement about family values. The generalization of it is what gets scary. It goes a long way toward keeping women down, basically, because it can be used to justify any kind of policy that keeps women at their desks instead of with their family or recovering from birth.
Schulte: Well, currently companies don’t have to provide women with anything, so I don’t know how it could get much worse; they are protected from outright firing them.
Nagy: But only in certain cases. Most people have to have been at their company a year. Both my last child and this one will be born when I had been at the company less than a year. The company I was at previously, I was there nine months. They were like “oh well!”
Schulte: So what’s the takeaway of all this?
Miller: For me, it’s that we have a long way to go.
Nagy: Well, part of it is that in a perfect world, she could do whatever she wanted, given her position of choice, and no one would care. But she will probably take criticism from all sides–people who think she takes too much, people who think she takes too little and should set an example.
Schulte: For me, it is that as it becomes less of an anomaly for women in powerful roles to take maternity leave, it opens more chances to talk about ways to improve family leave. It’s one more reason having women and other underrepresented people in leadership roles is so important. I would love to see high-profile women who go on maternity leave take the opportunity to address it publicly, and advocate for others who aren’t so lucky.
Miller: It gets interesting when women in her situation can bring the kind of lobbying power that big corporations seem to be able to use to implement all kinds of other policies in government. I’d like to see that happen. Then a policy mandate like the Family Medical Leave Act can get stronger.
Nagy: Ideally, she (and Google in general) would use the data they have about the benefits to the company of generous leave to help advocate for wider policy.
Schulte: We’re counting on you, Susan! I’m sure she’ll be happy to know that we have placed this task on her.
Nagy: Yeah, I don’t actually think it should be on her personally, but on companies like Google that have implemented strong leave and seen the benefits.
Miller: One more thing: I’d like to see her personally stage a hostile takeover of Hobby Lobby.