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.
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."