Marissa Mayer and the tale of the two week maternity leave

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, revered business woman and one of 23 female CEO’s in the Fortune 500, recently announced that she was pregnant with twins and that she intended to return to work within 2 weeks. The internet went nuts. What did this mean for women? After months of positive progression and debate on maternity rights and pregnancy discrimination in the US and the UK, was Marissa Mayer single handedly setting women’s equality back years with a single announcement?

When I was first alerted to the whole Marissa Mayer debacle, I instantly thought she was being naive, thoughtless and selfish. A public figure, managing thousands of women and knowing she is an international role model to millions, what the hell kind of message was she sending out? Did this set a negative precedent, did she not have a responsibility to demonstrate to her staff that it is okay to take maternity leave? Spending time with your new-born is good for mother, good for baby and good for business.

But actually, the debate and considerations here are far more nuanced than this. The more and more I ponder her announcement, the more I realise that Marissa Mayer was between a rock and a hard place, a position I am sure she has grown accustomed to after announcing her first pregnancy in 2012. The debate is indicative of a much larger issue, Ms Mayer is being punished for having a womb and using it. Male CEO’s in very prominent positions have children all the time without feeling they need to publicly state their intentions in terms of paternity leave. Not only did Marissa Mayer feel forced to make this statement, she is also clearly under a huge amount of pressure to keep her stakeholders happy, as Yahoo’s share prices took a hammering once the announcement was made. So is this really what Marissa Mayer wants? Or was she sentient to the negative impact her leave would have on her business at a critical time and therefore this was a move to protect her employees and shareholders? Let’s just pretend this was entirely her choice and it wasn’t about pressure, does that make her a bad mother? I was desperate to get back to work after my first baby, I love my son more than anything in the world and he is much more important to me than my job but I am a much better mother when I am working, I need to be stimulated to feel alive, and I am not the only person that can give him all he needs. Isn’t a large part of our fight for women’s lib about choice? We should surely be empowering women to make their own choices, creating structures and frameworks that support those choices.

The likelihood is though that Marissa Mayer did not make a free choice, her decision was very much influenced by the pressure her position carries. Should all women in positions of responsibility take truncated leave to selflessly protect their business, its employees and its stakeholders? Absolutely not. Good systems and procedures help to reduce the pressure on one individual, no one person is indispensable, or they shouldn’t be. Taking proper leave and planning for it can help you iron out many kinks in your business structure, it also gives other employees an opportunity to step up and shine. The pressure on Marissa Mayer is apparent to everyone, the instant downturn in share prices demonstrates how, in the public eye, Yahoo’s success or demise hinges on Ms Mayer being in full operation but in reality, taking time away from work can give you perspective, whilst strengthening your businesses processes and procedures. What is important to note is that the reduction in share prices was solely about public perception — Yahoo was not losing users or business. There is demonstrable evidence that flexible, well paid maternity leave of at least 6 months, has positive emotional and health impacts on both mother and baby. On the flip side, happy staff have been proven again and again to generate a healthy bottom line. The problem here is the perception of the business world, Marissa Mayer understands that they view time away from the business as negative not positive; that on the whole, they perceive leave longer than 2 weeks as a lack of dedication, even if that leave is to give birth to and raise another human being.

So Marissa Mayer was in a tricky position, was it really her responsibility to make a stand for maternity leave at the detriment of her company, her staff and her stakeholders? The problem is, if women in power continue to succumb to societal and corporate pressure then how will we ever change perceptions? Carolyn McCall, the rather terrific CEO of Easy Jet admitted in a Radio 4 interview that she also felt she needed to be back at work quickly following the birth of her children, at the time she was the Editor in Chief of the Guardian’s media group and she had 3 children in 3 years. She also thought being pregnant would reflect badly on her. She recalls her conversation with a male colleague ‘“They’re all going to think I can’t work so hard, or [I’m] not going to be as good.” Carolyn explained: “He looked at me and said ‘Are you mad? Of course they are not going to think that.’ That was an important moment; it’s a big deal having twins.” Her deputy editor also pointed out that she needed to be very aware of the message she was giving if she took a short maternity leave. She took 4 months for both births and of course the Guardian media group did not lose sales or readership, it went from strength to strength. The fact is we need role models, we need women to succeed to the top jobs, have families and to shout loud and proud from the roof tops that you can do both and you can take time away from work to look after your child without negatively affecting your business.

I don’t agree with Jessica Miller-Merrell that Marissa Meyer has set equality back by 10 years because she felt the need to announce her short maternity leave. I think we need to talk about maternity leave more. We need a public conversation about maternity leave, parental leave, pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the only way to spark that is to find ways of demonstrating that businesses do not suffer adverse reactions when their female employees have children and take a reasonable amount of time to care for them. We need new role models who are willing to take on this issue in a variety of ways — from taking extended maternity leave, to openly addressing the enormous and unfounded pressure placed on them to reduce the time they spend with their new babies. Let’s show the world that maternity leave is good for business, good for everyone.