Saturday, July 21, 2012

Assorted Comments on CEOs and Maternity Leaves and The Like

I've decided to gather up a few comments I've left around the place about Marissa Mayer, maternity leave, and all that. Then I want to drop the topic for awhile- I'm interested in returning to musings sparked by my recent "Closer to Free" post. I have a book review I want to write. And I'll no doubt come up with random other things to blather on about. This is not because I don't have more related topics bouncing around in my head. I'd love to write up what my ideal first year or so post-baby work/life arrangement would be. I still plan to start writing posts based on things I've learned from reading Mother Nature, though, and I've got that much delayed guest post for A Gai Shan Life drafted, and will no doubt feel the need to talk a bit about work, life, kids, and the whole shebang once I get that finalized and it is posted. So if you're only coming here to read about working motherhood issues, don't worry, the dry spell probably won't last too long. I just need a little break right now.

Anyway... here are some things I've said in comment sections that I'd like to pull up to the level of a blog post- I'm not sure why, since they all come from active comments sections. Maybe I just don't want to think about the news right now, despite the thoughtful posts about it that are piling up in my blog reader, and am looking to distract myself. And it is my blog, so I can do whatever I want! I'll post them in the order in which they were written.


First, from Anandi's post on the topic, I had a comment replying to the idea that the Swedish model of maternity leave would solve all of these problems, which had been hinted at by one of the other comments:

The problem with the Sweden model is that it essentially forces all women to take long leave- if there is a powerful social stigma against going back to work in less than a year, like Susan mentions above, then it would take a very strong first time mom to buck that expectation and expose herself to a bunch of judgment and go back earlier. Plus, since "no one" does that, she'd probably have to scramble to find infant care.

Now, I think that is better than the current US scenario where most women don't get as much leave as they want, but I do want to point out that it isn't utopia, either. For me personally, being out an entire year would have been the wrong choice. I'd probably have needed professional psychiatric help the first time around. Going back to work really, really helped me adjust to motherhood. It just did. Both times, I was out for 3 months, and worked part time for the 4th month. I don't know what my ideal would be. Maybe 4-5 months off- because why do we insist on sending moms back to work right when growth spurts hit (6 wks, 3 months) or right in the middle of the big separation anxiety phase (9-12 months)?- followed by 3 or so months working part time. But I would have wanted to keep some contact with the office in those 4-5 months, like I did during my 3 month leaves.

(And, for what its worth, neither of my kids slept through the night in their first year. My husband and I were still up multiple times per night with the first one well into the second year- until she suddenly just started sleeping through the night at about 2 years old. My second was up less often in the first two years, but still doesn't sleep through at 2.5. There is no amount of maternity leave that will guarantee you won't have to figure out how to work while also dealing with a child who doesn't sleep through the night. But... back in the really rough early days with baby #1, when my husband and I were both working part time, the person who was staying home with the baby the next day was the one who got to get a little more sleep. We thought that was harder than either of our jobs.)

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 or dad 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.


Next, in the comments on my own post, an exchange with an anonymous commenter who also works in tech and with Nicoleandmaggie helped me clarify my position about whether or not it matters that Mayer does not identify as a feminist (edited to fix an egregious mistake in which I mixed Larry Page and Sergey Brin into a single "Larry Brin"):

@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 Page, Sergey 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.

[Edit: in fact, Mayer isn't guaranteed ANY leave by law, since she will not have been in the job for at least a year when she gives birth. Welcome to the sucky parental leave situation in the US, folks!]

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.


Finally, a short comment over on Moxie's post, responding to the idea raised in the comments that the example Mayer is setting by not taking a long leave will make it easier for bosses to deny their employees' leave requests:

Look, if some asshole boss holds up what a CEO worth millions of dollars does as a reason for denying leave to one of his or her employees... blame the asshole boss, not the CEO who is presumably just making the decision that is right for her and her family given an unusual set of circumstances- namely the fact that the job of a lifetime came up for her when she was already pregnant.

[I would add: this is why we need LAWS about leave. Whether or not you get adequate parental leave should not come down to whether or not your boss is an asshole.]


I'll also note that Hush! has an interesting post on the topic, with a perspective I haven't seen laid out so clearly elsewhere that we should hate the game that many of our institutions make us play rather than blaming Mayer for how she's choosing to play it. Spot on, I think.

So, feel free to comment on any of my comments... or just roll your eyes and turn away in boredom with the topic. Posts on other topics coming soon! But now, I need to go do the dishes. Because I am not worth millions of dollars and do not have someone to do them for me. Perhaps I can ponder whether or not I would actually spend some of my millions on household staff to do my dishes if I were to ever find myself that wealthy. An interesting question that I will leave for another post!


  1. Anonymous4:03 AM

    Meyer may be covered by CA state law. A lot of states have state MLAs that cover people who haven't been on the job for a year, and CA is a law-happy state so it would be very surprising if it didn't.

    She may, however, not be covered if it has exemptions for CEOs and other high level high paid decision-makers. (Many employment protection laws specifically do not cover CEOs and other expensive important high-level employees. The idea is to allow companies autonomy for these key decision-makers so that the law, designed to protect normal people, can't be too expensive for the company if they need to change out their CEO for any reason.)

    But any normal person who is on a new job should check with their state laws about MLA if they need it. Company policy will also trump the lack of mandated leave if it is more protective, and many larger companies will have a stated company policy. So there are more protections than just the FMLA. (And if you're at a very small company... there are fewer protections. Employment protection laws often do not protect people who work at small businesses because they don't want one employee lawsuit to drive a company out of business.)

    1. No, CA law has the one year requirement- or at least it did 5 years ago. My husband almost got caught in that. Also, the employer has to have at least 50 employees.

      But yes, I suspect Yahoo has a more generous policy. But may not- when I worked at a big contracting firm (~40,000 employees), the employee handbook didn't mention maternity leave at all. All I had was what the law required.

    2. Thanks for the shout-out @Cloud!

      The first unstated premise here is that American companies follow every law to it's letter. Wrong. (See 2008). The second unstated premise is that every manager in the larger companies with more generous policies follows those policies to their letter. Also wrong. Between individual managers versus what the HR dept suggests, often the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing.

      In general, white collar rank and file employees who have worked over a year are the most likely ones to be able to take the full paid leave. The more supervisory and/or P&L responsibility an employee has, the sooner they're back from leave, and the more likely they are to stagger their return/come back part time/gradually transition back to full time. Mayer fits right in to how it usually goes down, but there are some notable exceptions. I have no citation for my claims here, but please take my word for it because I've seen it a million times (well almost).

    3. Yep, it seems like different companies follow the law differently. Mine has a fairly large CA presence (admittedly HQ is not in CA), but the policy is the same across the US - everyone, no matter how long you've worked there is entitled to the 12 weeks paid + 8 weeks unpaid for birth mothers. Adoptive parents and birth dads get 4 weeks paid + 8 weeks unpaid, though I have only seen 2 examples of men taking *any* of the unpaid leave, and certainly not all of it.

      In fact, the thing that I thought was crazy cool was that if you had just joined the company, but had or adopted a baby in the last 12 months, you were still eligible for the 4+8 as long as it was completed by your baby's 1st birthday.

      In contrast, at the startup I worked at, they did not fall under the WA laws (from what I was told), which only apply to companies with 50+ employees. So they technically didn't have to give you any leave, except whatever the federal law says which I can't remember - 6 weeks unpaid maybe?

      Their policy was case by case, and ended up being something like 12 weeks unpaid - not horrible but not great either.

  2. Anonymous9:00 AM

    It looks like CA still covers for pregnancy disability leave even if you haven't worked a full year.

    So that would probably give at least 2-3 weeks for a natural childbirth (given that's how long it takes to be able to sit down again!), and potentially more for a c-section.

    1. The disability portion of the leave is 6 weeks natural, 8 weeks c-section. And yes, that is separate from the FMLA and kicks in pretty much right away- but not if you happen to get laid off while pregnant (a big worry of mine the second time around).

      It is all a big, confusing mess. To this day, I have no idea what percentage of my pay I actually got during leave. Checks came from three different sources, and were different on different weeks. It would take a fair amount of math to figure out the overall percentage, and I never bothered. Somewhere between 50 and 80% of my pay over the entire leave, I think.

  3. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Blergh. I was going to let this go, I've avoided it on my own blog, but I decided to give a bit of an inside scoop anyway. Sorry that it has to be anonymous (I've commented here before while logged in) but oh well.

    I have a PhD in CS. In Silicon Valley. I have two very very young kids, and I've taken two varying length maternity leaves (4 months followed by 3 months part-time with the first, and essentially 11 months with the second). I also work for Yahoo. Here's my take, and what is being said (informally) among my coworkers.

    99% of the discussion among rank-and-file at Yahoo has absolutely nothing to do with sex or parenthood or FMLA or any of the rest of it. We just want to know whether she can do the job. We're thrilled that her CS degree is real, but we're nervous about what our colleagues at Google tell us about her management style and actual experience, which honestly isn't that great. Though honestly, most complaints about female managers tend to be colored so much by the fact that they're female and in charge that I'm withholding all judgment until I see her in action myself. (One of my Google friends complained to me bitterly about her, and when I pushed for details, it was clear that he just wasn't used to hearing a woman stand up for herself in a meeting.)

    One interesting thing to note in this discussion, by the way, is that the reason I and many of my female friends are still at Yahoo in the first place, while many of our male coworkers have (understandably) jumped ship, is that Yahoo is an incredibly family-friendly company. All those lower-level managers at Yahoo that everyone in the press and the blogosphere is so concerned will prohibit their underlings from taking maternity leave because of Mayer's example? I've never met one at Yahoo, and if they were to try something assholey, they would without a doubt be rebuked by others at or above their level. Every other company I've worked for in Silicon Valley is filled with those guys, but I have never met one at Yahoo. (Clearly management has other problems, given the state of the company, but the sexism that everyone is so concerned about is not one of them.)

    Every person I've talked to has understood that she said what she needed to say to do her job. They've also understood that Mayer is smart enough to know that there's a difference between a CEO with $300 million in her pocket who doesn't want or need traditional maternity leave, and an individual salaried engineer who wants or needs several weeks or months off. No, we don't think that the culture at Yahoo is suddenly going to become anti-family just because she sets up a nursery next to her executive suite at two weeks postpartum.

    As for me, I'm really hoping that she pulls it off. Not because of any positive or negative conclusions people will make about working mothers or FMLA or any of the rest of it. The people drawing those conclusions from a single non-representative data point are idiots, and they were going to draw that conclusion with or without Mayer providing fodder. I'm hoping she pulls it off because Yahoo is one of the only truly family-friendly tech companies in Silicon Valley, where nobody bats an eye when I stay home with sick kids and everybody schedules meetings during daycare hours and family health insurance is actually affordable and back-up child care is a company perk. I'm hoping she pulls it off because if I need to go look for another job, it will invariably be somewhere that is less family-friendly, and that is going to do way more harm to me and my kids than the amount of maternity leave taken by my CEO.

    1. Thanks so muchfor commenting! Your insight is much appreciated.

      I agree with your reasons for hoping she succeeds, incidentally. It has been sort of sad how no one actually seems to be worrying about the jobs of the folks at Yahoo.

      If you do end up out hunting- my best work-life balance every was at an incredibly male-dominated company with a downright Darwinian culture that everyone said would eat me alive. But it was a contracting firm, and everyone charged hours. So no one batted an eye if you left early or disappeared for three hours in the middle of the day- everyone did that, male, female, kids or no. We all just had to charge our 80 hours. I only left because the work I was getting wasn't what I really enjoyed.

      I hope Mayer pulls it off and succeeds. And I hope you come back and tell us whether her management style is good or bad!


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