Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Defense of Marissa Mayer

Perhaps you've heard by now that Marissa Mayer, Google's 20th employee and first female engineer, is Yahoo's new CEO and she's pregnant. Maybe you've also heard that she says she doesn't really identify as a feminist and that she's only planning on taking a few weeks' maternity leave, during which time she will continue to do some work.

Given those two statements, it is perhaps not surprising that both feminists and advocates for better maternity benefits and better work-life balance in general are expressing some displeasure and/or concern.

This may come as a surprise, since I consider myself both a feminist and an advocate for better work-life balance, but I think we should all lay off Mayer.

First, to the feminists annoyed with her, I say- I get it. It is really, really annoying to have so many women who have clearly benefited from feminism disavow the movement. It is damaging, even. I get that.

But try to see the situation from Mayer's vantage point. She is a woman in an incredibly male dominated culture, and furthermore it is a culture that to a large extent really, truly believes itself to be a pure meritocracy (it is not- but that doesn't matter here, what matters is that the mythology of tech culture is one of meritocracy). It is not out of the tech world mainstream at all to believe that the reason there aren't more women in the field is that they lack either the aptitude or the skill. There is a strong undercurrent of distrust of even the whiff of a suggestion that someone should be hired or promoted based on anything other than pure merit. If you don't believe me on this point, I suggest you go to a general tech site- slashdot or gizmodo or some place like that, find an article about the gender imbalance in tech fields, and read the comments. You may want to get yourself a good, stiff drink first, though- it will be pretty depressing reading.

You know and I know that feminism isn't about insisting on quotas or promoting less qualified women over more qualified men. It is about removing the structural roadblocks that stand in the way of qualified women and that work against the development of more qualified women. Heck, Mayer may even know that. But that is not how it is viewed by a lot of male geeks. Even male geeks who otherwise seem like normal, logical guys, which can make speaking about this issue in the tech world a really fraught experience- you don't really know who will speak up as an ally and who will pile on and belittle you. As a women in this environment, choosing to identify strongly and publicly as a feminist isn't a simple tribute to the women whose battles blazed a path for you to follow. It is quite literally picking a fight with some of the very people who will decide whether to hire you or promote you. Even as a CEO, Mayer cannot just choose to challenge this culture. She needs the respect of her (largely male) engineering staff as she leads them through difficult times. She does not need them whispering about whether or not their female colleagues are "affirmative action hires," or speculating about whether she "gets" the people she is leading.

Is it really so surprising that a woman in her position might decide to distance herself from feminism, either consciously or unconsciously? It is not a choice I have made, or even one I agree with, but I can certainly understand it. And hey, objectively, she is way more successful than I am, so who am I to judge her strategy? And to be honest, it isn't like I loudly proclaim my feminism at work. In fact, when a topic close to feminism comes up, I usually try to steer the conversation elsewhere. I don't really want to probe what my male colleagues think on this subject too deeply, and I certainly don't want to have to tell them what I think.  Judge me on that if you want, but at least acknowledge that having in depth discussions about feminism in a hugely male dominated culture such as the one in which I work is not exactly a risk free proposition. There are many, many battles involved in trying to be successful as a woman in a male dominated field. Do we really want to get into judging which ones individual women choose to fight?

Personally, I just aim to leave the environment a little more welcoming than I found it, and to get to continue my career in my chosen field. Sometimes, continuing that career involves some compromises. That is life in the real world. I wonder if Mayer had proclaimed herself a feminist, and embraced the mantle of being a "geek girl" instead of insisting she is just a "geek", would she have gotten as far as she has? Maybe, maybe not. Do you really blame her for not wanting to find out?

Next, to the topic of work-life balance and Mayer's statement about her plans for her maternity leave. On this one, I have to say- what do people expect she'll say? "Oh yeah, a few months after I start this incredibly challenging job of turning around a floundering tech company with thousands of employees, I plan to go on leave for several months, and I expect that no one will bother me with work concerns while I'm out?" Really, folks?

Here's what I think happened: the opportunity of a lifetime landed in Mayer's lap at a less than ideal time. She decided to go for it, and Yahoo's board- to their immense credit- decided to let her. She has figured out how she's going to try to make it all work, and since Yahoo is a publicly traded company, she probably needed to say something about her plans. She is a smart woman. She almost certainly knows that what she's going to attempt to do is very difficult, and she probably also realizes that there is a lot that she doesn't know about how it will all eventually play out. But can you imagine the reaction of investors if she came out and said "you know, becoming a mother is a huge deal, and I don't really know how I'll handle it?"

Who knows if she will really only be out of the office for a few weeks, and will really work through those initial weeks. To the people saying- rather snarkily- that it can't be done, I say "bullshit." It can be done, and I know that because I know women who have done it. (And their kids are doing just fine.)

For that matter, I took phone calls and replied to emails during both of my (3 month) maternity leaves. I suspect a lot of women do- caring for my newborn did not mean that I no longer cared about what happened with my team at work. Newborns can be very demanding little creatures, but even with my first- who pretty much wanted to be either held or in motion 24/7-  I managed to do other things during her early weeks. Granted, I usually arranged to make any work phone calls I needed to make during nap time, which was accomplished by taking Pumpkin for a walk while I talked. But even as sleep deprived and frankly overwhelmed as I was, I was able to have useful work-related conversations. And here is a dirty little secret- they may have helped me get through that tough period, by reminding me that I was, in fact, a competent person, even if I was completely incapable of getting my daughter to take a nap in her crib.

This short, working maternity leave may or may not be how Mayer would have arranged her maternity leave if she were staying at Google or if the Yahoo board had called a year ago, and she were already well-established in her role as the Yahoo CEO. But realistically, what were her options? Turn down the chance to be CEO of a major tech company- a chance that may never come again? Go out on leave before she has even had a chance to establish herself in her new job? Wave a magic wand and instantly create a better world in which a CEO going on a multi-month maternity leave within months of starting the job will cause no problems whatsoever?

As some people are pointing out, being a CEO will give her the power to arrange her schedule and work environment however works best for her. I think those people are right, and I agree that having that power is a huge benefit for a mother in the workplace. I will also point out that I didn't see a lot of people worrying about whether or not Thora Arnorsdottir could handle being the premier of Iceland as well as a new mother, which was another recent high profile story of combing motherhood and power. (Yeah, I know, she didn't win- but my point is about how her run was covered by the English-speaking media.) Why are people so much more concerned about whether or not Ms. Mayer can do it? Surely running a country is at least as challenging as running a struggling tech company?

Look, there is no doubt that Mayer has a lot of big challenges ahead of her. It would be awesome if she could turn Yahoo around while also loudly championing feminist causes and demonstrating by example that women can take reasonable maternity leaves without harming their careers. But that is not in the cards. From what I can tell, she has made a point of reaching out to encourage other women in tech and she has a management style that affords her employees a fair amount of flexibility. That is enough for me. It seems that she is doing a pretty stellar job of fighting the battles she's chosen. Someone else can fight the other battles. It is hugely unfair of us to expect one woman to fight them all.

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Here are some other articles and posts about this topic that I like:
  • Sarah Green in The Harvard Business Review on how being pregnant is the least of Marissa Mayer's problems. This is my favorite- if you only read one, make it this one.
  • Joan Walsh in Salon has some good points, particularly about the pregnancy angle. And I love this quote: " urge young women to read Slaughter and Sandberg and then make their own choices."
  • Hanna Rosin (I know! I am as surprised as anyone to find myself agreeing with Hanna Rosin!) has two pieces in Slate. The piece on the pregnancy aspect of the story doesn't say much, but her piece on the feminism part comes closer than anything else I've read in the mainstream media to getting what I think the truth is in how women like Mayer respond to sexism in their industry: "These women are not blind, or stupid. It’s more that they will themselves to ignore it so they can get their work done. They think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business."
Now tell me what you think, or leave me links to other articles you think have good points. As always, I welcome discussion, and just want everyone to be civil and keep to arguing the points, not belittling the people making them. I can't moderate or even reply much during the work day, but I will come back and stomp any trolls or gratuitously mean people, and reply to the excellent comments I know you all will have!

51 comments:

  1. Given Yahoo's recent history, she may not still be CEO by the time she delivers. I kind of wish I'd heard as much about her as I'd heard about the previous 4 CEOs.

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  2. Also one begins to understand why Sarah Palin hid her last pregnancy.

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    1. Oh so true. In her memoir, she recounts fretting that people would think "see, we elect a woman governor and *this* is what we get." Those women, just getting pregnant all the time! Whatever you think of her, you can imagine how tough a situation it would be in to find yourself accidentally pregnant while in office. Clearly, she really is pro-life, given that she went through with it.

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    2. Well, given some of her reckless actions near the end of her pregnancy I have some doubts about how pro-life she actually is. Some of what she chose to do (leaving a city with top medical centers while in labor with a special needs child to fly to Alaska, for example) seemed to be tempting God into helping her have a still-birth. But that's another discussion and really none of my business.

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    3. I thought of Sarah Palin immediately, too. Coincidence they're both disavowers of feminism? I think not.

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  3. cell phone and a baby sling are parent's best friend on maternity leave. I clocked a lot of miles walking around the neighborhood talking on the phone (although if you need a computer I suppose that leaves you pacing your house). I also found, for my infant that demanded to be held, that I could balance an infant on a boppy while typing with one hand on laptop next to me. GOOD TIMES I suppose there must be some people who get to totally check out during their leave, but that wasn't reality for me either.

    ummm can I just say that my greatest worry is yahoo tanks after she takes over and her sex/pg gets blamed even though yahoo is sucking already

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  4. My reaction to the Mayer story was pretty much the same as yours - I very quickly went to the place of "Well, what did they expect her to say publicly about her maternity leave? 'I'm going to check out for six months'?" At the same time, however, I had the same reaction that I did to the coverage of Sarah Palin's birth/maternity "leave" - which was I get it, but then again, maternity leave is so appalling in this country, and faces so many obstacles (people's perceptions of what it is reasonable to expect of a postpartum mother being first and foremost, the persistent notion that having a baby is a medical event and the immediate physical recovery is the only thing that matters, reinforced by how leave is often tied to disability and/or sick leave) , that I can't bring myself to publicly celebrate, or even support, a woman saying "Oh, I don't really need maternity leave! I'll push on through!" even though I understand that some powerful women will always need to do just that. And clearly I don't think it's a case of whether or not a person is *capable* of it, because I think we could all do it, if we had to. I also worry that it sends a bad message to younger (childfree but want to have children) women, saying, well you shouldn't advocate for leave because if you really care about your career, you'll just push through! You don't really need it anyway! You're just being whiny and demanding 'special treatment'! which is what we hear all the time anyway.

    I didn't take work calls or check work email for at least four to six weeks following my babies' births. In the second case, I did work when the baby was 2-3 weeks old, because I had a publishing deadline that couldn't be pushed off. But I also had a mother and other family staying with me, who held the baby the 2 hours a day I worked in those couple of weeks. All I'm saying is that I think the decision to stay plugged in or not should be the woman's - I don't think there should be an expectation that two weeks following a baby's birth, the mother will be answering fifty emails a day and fielding phone calls. (Unless she is the governor of a state or a high powered CEO in a critical time for her company.) And I feel even more impassioned about this because a dear friend working in a place without a decent maternity leave policy was told that she was expected to attend a series of meetings two weeks following her baby's expected birth (a medically indicated planned C section following a high risk pregnancy). She is not a high powered CEO, and is not in a position of critical importance at her place of work. All I'm saying is that this is really happening, to ordinary women, so I feel like I have to be super cautious the way I approach these kinds of stories (where one person's experience which is very particular gets universalized by media/commentators). I'm not that interested in the particulars of Mayer's story, only about the struggles women face in the workforce in the absence of decent maternity leave policies.

    (None of these points are intended as "refutations" of Cloud's - only my additional thoughts on the matter.)

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    1. I absolutely agree that women should have a protected right to take a decent maternity leave, and that no one should REQUIRE a woman to work in any way during that leave.

      I think your friend would be able to sue her employer if they fired her for refusing to attend those meetings, since they are falling during the paltry leave we do get in the US- and it is covered by disability law. But I'm not sure about that, because the disability thing is state by state, right? But isn't there also a federal law guaranteeing 3 months off, just w/o pay? I'm ashamed to say I don't really know the ins and outs, because it was just not an issue for me either time- I told my employers what leave I planned to take, and then had to convince them that it was OK for me to check in via email and the occasional phone call, and that yes, I really did want to do that.

      But I don't think it is fair to expect Marissa Mayer to fix the mess that is our maternity leave situation while also turning Yahoo around and demonstrating that you can succeed as a woman engineer in Silicon Valley! (And it seems you agree with me on that- I just feel the need to restate it.)

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    2. Unpaid leave is covered by the FMLA, but only if the person has worked long enough at the company and the company is large enough. States have different laws that may offer more protection.

      (I was not covered by FMLA and went back to work after 3 weeks... would have been two except there was a freak snowstorm that shut down the school. Yes, I'm bitter, especially since it turns out everybody voting on me for tenure just assumed I had that semester off because how could there not be maternity leave.)

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    3. Yes, yes Cloud. It's not her mess to fix in a broad sense, and in a specific sense her particular circumstances are ones where one could argue a different model of leave is almost required (as in the example of heads of state/local government). But I do worry about the *impression* the story gives to the American people that hey, maternity leave isn't necessary/important. But now I'm repeating myself! Sorry!

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    4. I think Erin's concern re: leave exactly says what I want to say. I don't think it's Mayer's responsibility to advocate for leave, etc. but I do take issue with all these womens' groups and sites championing her as this "great example" and "leap forward" for us women.

      Heck, even our internal womens' group was all "woo hoo!" about it, and maybe I'm especially sensitive since I'm on the cusp of my leave and having some job uncertaintly, but I really, really don't think we should be holding her up as an example because it's shooting ourselves in the foot.

      That being said, she needs to make the choices that are right for her. I just don't want the tech industry thinking that anyone can "work through it" just because she chooses to.

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    5. Could not agree with you more! I do understand why Marissa Mayer is planning to return to work so soon -- the timing sucks in terms of her taking on a new job. However, it is very true as you point out that if adequate leave* did exist and many women choose not to use it, then the assumption is that those who don't answer emails or call in meetings during leave, or return as soon as possible, are less dedicated. I really needed that dedicated time to bond with my child. I didn't want the pressures of work. I just wanted to enjoy parenting. Upon my return, I was refreshed and finally getting sleep. Many women don't have the support of in-laws, parents or nannies so the short leave is even harder, coinciding with lack of sleep.

      *ideal leave to me is 1 year to coincide with breastfeeding, whether you breastfeed or not, or at least 6 months. months...)

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    6. I can't seem to stop referencing Sarah Palin, but if we believe the account in the book "Game Change" it was widely believed Governor Palin experienced postpartum depression during the campaign. If true, might a shortened/non-existent maternity leave have had something to do with it? I worry that those narratives get short shrift when we pooh pooh the importance of a meaningful maternity leave in favor of the "just push though it" mentality that certainly does not apply to everyone.

      I agree Cloud, cut MM some slack, but at the same time - I'm with @Anandi, be careful who we choose as role models.

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    7. I want a world where Mayer can be one of many different role models for young women. She shows one possible way to build a successful life. Other women could show others. I think the problem is that we women don't have enough role models in the public eye. If we had more, then maybe each individual one's choices wouldn't be dissected like they are now.

      (I just left a loooonnng comment over at Anandi's blog about this, and other stuff, too.)

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    8. @Cloud, It is indeed a great comment-- you should upgrade it to post!

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  5. mom2boy5:43 AM

    37, CEO of Yahoo and pregnant - she has accomplished everything the feminist movement could have hoped to gain for women in the workforce. Feminism isn't about silencing the critics. It's about choice and opportunity. I doubt she planned to be pregnant and a brand new CEO at the same time. But she is and she gets to do it. That is huge. That is awesome.

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    1. It is huge and awesome. We should remember that.

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  6. Anonymous6:56 AM

    You're absolutely right, Cloud.

    To the "feminist" critics I would say that feminism is about respecting everyone's choices, no matter what they are. Then why aren't we respecting the choices of Marissa Mayer?

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  7. Sorry for the derail, Cloud, but @Anonymous: I have to add that actually, not all feminists accept the notion that "feminism is about respecting everyone's choices, no matter what they are." That's a particular kind of feminism to which you are referring, usually called "choice feminism," which a lot of other feminists have a big problem with (largely because it leads to situations where feminists are not permitted to question phenomenon like "Girls Gone Wild" because, hey those girls are *choosing* to show off their boobs, so that must be, like, feminist, right? Or at least feminists can't criticize their choices.). Feminists who oppose choice feminism generally say that no, feminism is not about respecting choices, it's a social justice movement aimed at creating legal, economic, and social equality between the sexes.

    That said, I entirely agree with the general point that Mayer should not be called out for doing something "unfeminist", or for not being feminist enough. Personally, I think all people should identify as feminists, but I'm not the social justice police.

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    1. Oooh... could be fun to have a discussion of choice feminism vs. other forms here. I was raising a point the other day about choice in the light of findings that men with stay-at-home wives are less likely to promote women. In that case, one woman's choice may lead to less opportunity for other women. If feminism is about more opportunity for women, then that choice wouldn't fit very well. Personally, I think people should do whatever they'd like in terms of work/family but calling it feminism is something else.

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    2. Here's us on one definition of choice feminism:

      http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/is-there-anything-wrong-with-choice-feminism/

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    3. Not really a derail! No worries.

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  8. Cloud, you pushed me over the edge. I was willing myself not to write about it, because I don't want to get into arguments, and I knew you and others would cover it more rationally than I can :)

    But I had to do it. I think I have read one too many "a great leap for womankind" things about this issue. So I too agree that we should leave Mayer alone, but for different reasons than you.

    http://houseofpeanut.blogspot.com/2012/07/why-we-should-choose-our-role-models.html

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    1. Everyone should go ready your post! It is good, even if I don't worry as much about the role model aspect- maybe because I'm in a slightly different field, so am not hearing as much about this at work.

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  9. I have toyed with writing a post on this myself, but now I wonder, why bother, when you have done such an excellent job!

    I worked through both my six week maternity leaves. The first, I had a major project to manage, so I did lots of emails, daily meetings, and review of documentation. I nursed my daughter almost 24-7 those six weeks, too. The second, just five months ago for our adoption, I came in to work for a day each of the six weeks because I had left so last-minute that there was no one to cover all my work. I still nursed my daughter (adopted, no less) most of the time.

    Do I say it to brag? Certainly not. But the idea that this woman, a CEO who obviously is very on the ball and has it together, cannot do it is just laughable. Of course she can. And her child, like my own, will not suffer for it. Perhaps it's a bit vain of me to believe this, but I like to think that my actions in a male-dominated industry only help my daughters' futures and make them better.

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    1. Brava!

      Thank you for this comment. I have to admit I'm getting a bit irritated with even the well-meaning comments about how going back to work can't be done without harming someone.

      My child has not suffered either.

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    2. Good for you, Tiffany. I've been getting a bit tired of comments too about how it can't be done. Of course it can be done - a woman can be a fabulous business person and a fabulous mother. These comments and blog posts are often from people saying "I was ambitious until I had my son" ERGO no can have it all. But that's BS. It just means you made your particular choices. It means nothing for anyone else.

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  10. I've seen someone do the 2-week maternity leave thing very successfully. Ironically she just had a 3rd child a few months ago and decided that she was finally in a place where she could afford to take the full year off, and claims to be having a wonderful time. Although that doesn't necessarily imply that she is regretting not taking the time off with the first two.

    You'd need a lot of family support to pull off something like that, but if your partner is willing there's no reason it should be a problem. I went back to work (aka grad school) after 4 months while my husband stayed home and it was absolutely wonderful. I'd been feeling like such a failure as a mother, but suddenly I had several hours a day where I got to do something I was really good at, with interesting people to talk to. And my husband really enjoyed getting a chance to be in charge.

    I'd just hate to see people using this example to argue that women don't actually need maternity leave.

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  11. Thanks for the good, thoughtful comments, everyone. I am always nervous posting a potentially controversial piece these days, because I cannot comment from work now. Thanks for making my worry seem silly!

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  12. I am going to say -- good for Yahoo! This got them some good exposure and brownie points with women. Not sure they did it on purpose, but I don't think it's hurting them exactly.

    As for Mayer, hats off to her. She's obviously an amazing woman and I wish her all the best in personal life and career. From personal experience, yes it is totally possible to work from home after giving birth. I have done things such as work on homework, write a proposal with a 5-day-old, edit papers and dissertations...

    I understand people's concerns that she is making a bad precedent. That's what I was told when I had my second baby on the tenure track; he was born in May, I was going to take the summer off and be back to teaching in September. A fellow female faculty told me I was making a bad precedent by not requesting a whole semester off. I felt that was silly -- it was my second, I knew what I was doing, I knew I would go crazy at home after 3 months, and I had research and teaching to do. WTF would I have to take the time I don't need in the name of sisterhood? Btw, no other women have had babies since (the younger two did not want kids it seems), so who exactly is my choice hurting? Sheesh.

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  13. I've decided to put an excerpt of the comment I left on Anandi's post here- but y'all should go read her post (and my whole comment, if you're so inclined) for another perspective on all this.

    But this bit seems relevant to the discussion here:

    In my perfect world, we all really, truly accept that different arrangements will be right for different families, and set up our institutions to handle that. Some families will want the mom to take a year off. Some families will want to split time between mom and dad. Some families will want both parents to go back to work within that first year, and will want to use outside help to make that possible. Some families will want one of the parents to stay home until the kids start school. Some families will want one or both parents to work part time. Etc., etc. All of these are valid choices. Each choice presents problems. The best approach isn't to pick one option and "bless" that by making society work around that. The best approach is to recognize the diversity of needs and wants, and try to set up society to provide the basic building blocks that families need to build their own solutions. So, good, quality child care at prices everyone can afford (probably a sliding scale). A protected right to pump. Maternity leave options that make it possible for a new mom to stay home a year if she wants, which requires better temporary labor markets (i.e., ones that don't deprive the temps of benefits). Better "on ramps" for people coming back in after multiple years off. Heck, we're dreaming, so why not make it possible/more accepted to bring babies into the workplace and/or have better asynchronous work from home options?

    And while we're in my perfect world... yeah, Marissa Mayer can be one type of role model. And someone who took 5 years off and then came back in and went on to a great career could be another type of role model. And someone else (like you, Anandi!) who worked part time for awhile and still had a great career could be yet another type. And so on and so on. There is not one path to a successful life- heck, there isn't even one definition of what a successful life is. The problem for women is that there are so few role models in the public eye, so each new prominent woman is elevated to an impossible pedestal of being THE role model. That is BS.

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  14. Alexicographer7:31 PM

    Late to the discussion here and I had never even heard of Marissa Mayer until -- 2 days ago? -- and even now my knowledge basically extends to 1 NPR piece + this post. That said, while I agree with the concerns @Erin raises above, my first (and persisting) reaction to Mayer's particular circumstances are that she's got both the authority and (I assume) the money to manage the process of welcoming her new baby into her life however she wants -- if that's having both a nanny and a lactation consultant on call 24/7 with soundproofed nursery in her office building (I exaggerate slightly for effect -- or do I?) -- she can have it. While I don't imagine this to be an issue of "authority," I assume, too that it is feasible if desired for her DH to exit the workforce and become the SAHP with her as the breadwinner. Of course, in this thinking I clearly overstate the breadth of choices available to her ... I mean, she could take the CEO job and quit it when the baby arrives (said departure unannounced in advance), I suppose, but not, in fact, take it and insist on a year's paid maternity leave (or a month's, or unpaid). But really, I'm inclined to figure every, say, Starbuck barista's early months of motherhood are far, far more challenging than Mayer's will be, whatever choices the latter makes, and not, I admit, to give Mayer's circumstances or decision much more thought than that.

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    1. Yeah, I believe she was worth roughly $300 million BEFORE taking this job. So she and her husband are working only because the want to. And I agree- it has always sort of annoyed me the way we focus in on women like Mayer, or even me, and wonder how/whether they can "have it all" when in my book the people with the really hard motherhood roads are the ones doing it while working low wage jobs. Or even decent wage jobs without the autonomy and flexibility that a lot of us have.

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  15. But, how's her HUSBAND going to do it? I mean, a CEO wife, a newborn, a house to clean, meals to cook, shopping and laundry to be done? And I guess he works, too? All I want to know is, is he up to the task?

    No, but seriously, I hate the assumption is that a new baby only upends the life of the mother. If her husband were the new CEO of Yahoo, we wouldn't even know she was expecting.

    I know that maternity leave, even when countries/companies are progressive enough to extend it to both partners as "parental leave," is mostly a feminine concern. I took nine months of leave for both my kids, my husband took only a few weeks: breastfeeding, societal norms, and (in our case) a significant salary differential meant it made the most sense. And I didn't regret it. (And aside from calling my boss once a month to check in, I didn't think about work or miss it AT ALL. And, yes, I'm still a feminist.)

    But, let's be real, becoming a father changed my husband's world as much as it did mine. He got as little sleep, made as many accommodations to his work schedule, and took on as many new responsibilities as I did. He also ended up more efficient, and happier, I'd venture.

    Anyway, all this focus on mothers irritates me. Reminds me of back when Segolene Royal was running for president of France in 2007, and another politician asked in jest, "But who's going to take care of the [five] children?"

    And who was the father of those five children, you ask? Fran├žois Hollande, our current president.

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    1. Did you see the video of the female politician in the France parliament getting heckled? Holy cow. France, you have some work to do! (Of course, so does America... just maybe slightly different work.)

      I've been reading Mother Nature and really need to get around to starting a series of posts about how it is making me think about some of these issues about mothers and fathers and how and why they might be different.

      But short answer is: yes! Let's call out the powerful fathers, too, please. See my comment below. :)

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  16. Anonymous3:57 PM

    Cloud, if Mayer were up-and-coming, I would agree with you completely. But surely we can agree that she has arrived! If someone like her chooses not to be a role model and is still hiding her true beliefs for fear of how others will judge her, how on earth do we expect things to change? I’ve been an electrical engineer in the tech world for almost 20 yrs. I am not nearly as powerful, wealthy, or successful as Mayer. But I speak up – because if not me, who the hell else? My underlings who have even less power than I do? No, she doesn’t get a free pass from me on the feminism thing. As far as her statements about her maternity leave plans, I just assumed that was publicity fodder from the start, as have many others.

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    1. I actually think the next few years are probably going to be the ones that make or break her career, when, in her shoes, I'd be least inclined to rock the geek boat. She has a really tough turnaround to pull off, and there is always the risk that what happened to Carly Fiorina could happen to her.

      Also, she hasn't really done anything anti-feminist. From what I can tell, she will go to women in tech events, and I haven't heard her say anything that isn't in line with feminism... except the bit where she says she doesn't consider herself a feminist. And that was in response to a direct question. Now, if I were asked directly if I am a feminist, I would answer yes. But there would also be no one recording the answer to broadcast to the entire world- so the consequences are fairly limited.

      I guess I am far more interested in how she treats other women coming up behind her and what sort of culture she encourages in terms of flexibility and other important things, than whether she chooses to take on the tech culture that thinks feminism is a bad word.

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    2. What happened to Carly Fiorina: She ran for governor of CA?

      Sure, people blame her for running HP into the ground, but it doesn't seem to have killed her career all that much. And in this case, everybody knows Yahoo is already dying.

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    3. (correction: senate)

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    4. Fiorina lost the respect of the employees of HP, and was basically excoriated in the tech world. I have no idea if she deserved it or not, but it was incredibly vicious and damaging.

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    5. Anonymous9:23 AM

      “I actually think the next few years are probably going to be the ones that make or break her career, when, in her shoes, I'd be least inclined to rock the geek boat.”

      Good grief, for how many years do you have to be called one of the most influential women in the tech world before you can rock the boat!? Also, as n&m said, if Yahoo tanks, no one will accuse her of running it into the ground; people will just say she couldn’t pull off a miracle. No doubt they will blame her pregnancy and new mom status…. So really, she hasn’t got much to lose at this point by embracing her feminist identity now, and the potential benefits to other women would be huge. (O.c., if that’s not what she truly believes, then that’s a completely different issue.)

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    6. "it was incredibly vicious and damaging"

      So was her senate campaign against Barbara Boxer, IIRC from the NPR coverage of it. She still seems to be doing just fine for herself, however. Kinda like Mitt Romney and other influential wealthy Republicans. Heck, she's still listed as one of the top 10 women in Tech according to Time magazine this week. Also pretty sure Fiorina doesn't claim to be a feminist.

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    7. @Anonymous- I have no idea whether Mayer secretly considers herself a feminist and is strategically hiding that or if she has internalized the culture in which she works and the antifeminist backlash nonsense that was prevalent during her formative years (and mine) and just doesn't realize the huge overlap between the things she says she believes and the cause she says she doesn't identify with. I don't think it matters.

      My point is this: identifying strongly a feminist is a very real risk in the environment in which she has made her career. I do not think we get to tell other people what risks they "have" to take and which battles they "need" to fight.

      If we insist that all powerful women must also choose to fight the antifeminist backlash, we are asking them to add an extra battle to their list. We are asking them to take on yet one more thing that their male peers do not have to deal with.

      Let's ask Larry Brin and Tim Cook if they consider themselves feminists. Let's ask them what they've done to encourage more women to get into tech. And then let's be scandalized if they say something clueless in response. When/if Mark Zuckerberg's wife gets pregnant, let's ask HIM how on earth he thinks he'll be able to run his company with a newborn to care for. Doesn't he know how sleep deprived he'll be? Then let's judge him for not taking the full leave he is allowed by law (which, incidentally, is the same as Mayer is allowed- FMLA in California is open to both parents), and wonder what sort of example HE'S setting for his employees.

      I think there are two ways women advance the cause, one is by being an activist, forcing the issues, and insisting on change. The other is by being willing to swallow the indignities and injustices and persevere and prove that women can do whatever it is that everyone says we can't. We need people to do both things. Different women will be naturally inclined to approach the problem in different ways- and that is OK. We don't do ourselves any good by trying to insist that every woman fight every battle. No one can do that and succeed.

      @Nicoleandmaggie- I have no idea why Time would call Fiorina a top woman in tech. As far as I know, she's not doing anything tech-related right now. Probably because there aren't enough other viable candidates or because they were too lazy to really go looking, and both options are sad. I find Fiorina's politics and political campaign noxious, and I did not vote for her. I don't care if she fades into irrelevance. But I remember the comments on the tech sites and the articles written about her during her tenure at HP, and they were indeed vicious and often included incredibly misogynistic comments. I remember thinking that it would be almost impossible for anyone to succeed as CEO in that environment. Everyone- both inside and outside of HP- seemed to be rooting for her to fail. If I were Mayer, I would definitely be studying what went wrong in Fiorina's case so that I could try to avoid it. I wouldn't care that everyone knows that Yahoo is failing- I wouldn't have taken the CEO job if I didn't think I could turn it around and I would care deeply about succeeding at that, both for myself and for the employees of Yahoo. And yes, I'd probably care more about that than about fighting the tech culture on whether or not it is OK to call yourself a feminist. Me being who I am, I'd probably eventually say something that dragged me into that fight, anyway. But then again, my penchant for doing that may be holding me back now. Who knows?

      All I'm saying is that we should let Mayer prioritize her battles for herself. If she succeeds as CEO, she will have won a huge victory for feminists, whether she considers herself one or not.

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    8. Oops. Larry Page. Or Sergey Brin. I think I just merged the Google guys into one....

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    9. Anonymous9:33 PM

      @Cloud: “If we insist that all powerful women must also choose to fight the antifeminist backlash, we are asking them to add an extra battle to their list. We are asking them to take on yet one more thing that their male peers do not have to deal with.”

      Yeah, life is not fair, and your point is? Look, obviously we disagree. I believe that Mayer has benefited immensely from the (very public) sacrifices that women before her made, and that she does have a responsibility to pay it forward. Apparently, you don’t think so. But let’s not pretend that our difference of opinion is because I don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be a woman in tech.

      “I think there are two ways women advance the cause, one is by being an activist, forcing the issues, and insisting on change. The other is by being willing to swallow the indignities and injustices and persevere and prove that women can do whatever it is that everyone says we can't.”

      No, not if while pursuing the second option you effectively renounce your identity as a feminist. Then what you are proving is that women can succeed only by becoming men. That does not advance the cause at all.

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    10. @Anonymous- Yes, we disagree and we can leave it there. I would like to clarify, though, that I never meant to imply you don't understand what it is like to work in tech. Clearly you do.

      I also never said I don't think she has a responsibility to pay it forward, although I will say now that framing that as a requirement for all women (and don't all women benefit from some earlier feminists' battles?) makes me uncomfortable. Who gets to decide what battles we all have to fight? What if someone thinks YOU aren't fighting the right battles? Or does this only apply to women who make it high enough up to make the news?

      Anyway, what I said was that I don't think we can tell her what battles she has to fight. And I stand by that.

      And if not identifying as a feminist is becoming a man, there are going to be some very surprised fundamentalist Christians out there.

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    11. Sounds like there's some different definitions of what it means to be "feminist" in this discussion (and no doubt Meyer is using a different definition as well, probably distancing herself from radical feminism... if tech is truly a meritocracy, then everyone in tech is a liberal feminist whether they know it or not).

      http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/on-definitions/

      And of course, there's legitimate disagreements about "choice feminism" and how much obligation we have to other people vis-a-vis our own choices.

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    12. I think it was in the comments section on your blog (maybe even that very post) that I last really annoyed another feminist by saying I don't think we get to demand other women fight certain battles!

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  17. Interesting post, Cloud. Enjoyed reading it.

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    1. Thanks. I'm looking forward to reading your perspective when you article is published. I'm guessing it is going to be a little different than mine! But I'm sure it will be well thought out and interesting.

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  18. Anonymous11:11 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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