Now that the chatter about Marissa Mayer has started to grow cold, let me admit that the whole conversation has pissed me off.
In case you’ve spent the past few days under a rock or — same thing — totally unplugged, Marissa Mayer is the former Google superstar who was annointed CEO of Yahoo on Monday. Her story went viral when she casually announced that she was preggers, telling Fortune Magazine: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.” Those 14 words ignited a shitstorm.
What made me incredibly cranky is how retro the conversation quickly became: It wasn’t about Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old brainiac tapped to become one of only 20 women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. But Marissa Mayer, new mom: How on earth will she manage? When will she bond with her newborn? How in the hell will she ever run Yahoo (which, it should be noted, is in desperate need of turnaround.)
All the backchat and the judging that came with it? Sheer lunacy. And, yeah, more than a little bit retro: Would we be talking about any of this if a soon-to-be-a-father had gotten the top job at a major U.S. company? You know the answer. No effing way.
What makes me crazy is what we’re not talking about: the real reason the conversation caught fire in the first place. And that’s the fact that the U.S. remains one of the least family-friendly countries in the industrialized world when it comes to public policy and workplace structures. And that, when it comes to managing the almighty juggle between home and work, the problem is seen as purely a woman’s to solve.
We never seem to question that. Or ask why, when we talk about ambitious women like Mayer, we make what should be the political intensely personal: What will she do?
Who cares? What really matters is what we – men and women alike – need to do to make work work for all of us. Let’s start with public policy. Ours sucks. To demonstrate just how much, look at Sweden. As we reported in Undecided, Sweden subsidizes preschool and elder care—and provides thirteen months of paid parental leave that can be taken in any increments until the child turns eight—reserving at least two months of that leave for fathers. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take parental leave. And those who don’t often face the stink-eye from family, friends, and coworkers.
By contrast, here in the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for twelve workweeks after the birth of a child. Period. As for valuing work-life balance? In spring of 2010, Congress failed to pass the Work–Life Balance Award Act, a thoroughly benign bill that would have established an award for businesses that develop and implement work–life balance policies. And child care? Legislation to establish early childhood education and day care programs, with tuition on a sliding scale, was passed by both houses back in 1971. Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed it. Some forty years later, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that only one out of six children eligible for child care assistance receives it.
Then there’s the workplace itself, which is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business, and Don could come home (or not) whenever it suited him. But how many families live like that anymore? In this economy, how many could? And so Betty, like Don, puts in the expected 52-hour workweek, and then comes home to do the laundry. And sure, while many forward-thinking companies now allow employees to be flexible, what that often means is that, whether you’re at the office or at home, more than likely, you’re at work. At two jobs.
And finally, let’s look at our social culture, by which I mean: where are the men? Despite the fact that most working women put in the same long hours as their husbands, when they come home, they still own the second shift. To this day, we largely define work-outside-of-work in traditional gender terms: men do the yardwork and take care of the car, women do the dishes and take care of the kids. This is not to put down the male gender: I’m sure there are any number of guys out there who are more than willing to pick up the kids or fold the clothes, as a 2011 Boston College Center for Work & Family report on “The New Dad” found. But where the conflict arises, Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family told Diversity Executive Magazine is within the cultural context:
Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.
So trust me. I am delighted that Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while being, you know, openly pregnant. She’s a great example of the fact that a woman can use her brain and her uterus at the same time. And as such, she is sure to start chipping away at the maternal wall that holds many of us back when it comes to positions of power. But let’s go beyond the obvious. Rather than opining on whether Mayer will be a good mommy, what we really ought to be talking about is why the workplace remains so incompatible with motherhood in the first place – and why we assume that fixing that incompatibility is women’s work.