Marissa Mayer is no enigma


(Pascal Lauener/Reuters)

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's maternity leave may have only been "a few weeks long," but her employees are about to start getting a lot more time off—and getting paid for it, too.

NBC News reported Tuesday that Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo is expanding its parental leave benefits, offering women who give birth 16 paid weeks off, doubling or more what its employees previously received. Fathers will now receive eight weeks of paid paternity leave, up from none before.

Yahoo's new benefit is generous, to be sure. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average full-time worker in the United States receives just 13 days of paid family leave (or less than three weeks). In the information industry, it's five and a half weeks. And even many of the best companies offer far less than Yahoo's new policy will grant. A recent report shows that, on average, the top 100 companies in Working Mother magazine's 2011 list of the best companies for working moms only provided 7.2 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, 3 weeks of fully paid paternity leave, and 5.3 weeks of fully paid leave to adoptive parents.

Yahoo's cushy new benefit is sure to be picked over and analyzed ad nauseam. Since becoming CEO, Mayer has found herself at the epicenter of our national debate over gender politics in the workplace and the double standards women face when they reach positions of leadership. As a result, some are saying the new benefit could be a PR move—"damage control after taking a black eye in the work-from-home stumble," according to one business professor—or a way to "repair the damage" done when Mayer "hurt her image as a working mom." Critics even wrung their hands in despair when Mayer returned to work within weeks of giving birth, wondering if the young women who work for her feel now pressured to cut their leaves short, too.

I can also imagine others seeing the move to lengthen maternity leave "through a gender lens," as one advocate for women in technology put itOf course the first woman to give birth while CEO of a Fortune 500 company would want to expand the benefit for others, some are likely to smirk. A male CEO does it and he's simply generous. A female CEO in her late 30s does it, and it's personal.

But here's the thing: Mayer is most likely offering this benefit because her competitors do, plain and simple. And right now, Yahoo needs talent. Facebook reportedly offers both women and men four months of paid parental leave, as well as $4,000 in "baby cash"; Google offers up to 22 weeks of paid maternity leave. The new Yahoo benefits also include perks that have nothing to do with having a baby. Every five years, Yahoo employees are now eligible to take eight weeks of unpaid time off, which is comparable to other tech companies in the area that also offer sabbaticals.

Mayer's decision to expand parental leave may seem to make her even more of an enigma: A young female CEO who doesn't call herself a feminist, bans working from home, and takes only a couple of weeks of maternity leave for her own child before increasing it for everyone else. For many, her actions don't fit preconceived notions. But when viewed through the lens of what will make her company most competitive for talent, the decision to expand parental leave makes plenty of good sense.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Let’s give Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer a break

‘Queen bee’ CEOs get scrutiny and flak while ‘king wasps’ get a free pass

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · April 30, 2013