Though Marissa Mayer, the pregnant 37-year-old executive newly named CEO of Yahoo, became an instant pioneer to many working women this week, she has also come under attack in some quarters for saying she plans to take barely a wisp of maternity leave.
She told Fortune soon after she revealed publicly that she is due in early October that “my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
The statement immediately raised two questions:
What’s the benefit of a new mom in such a high-profile position if she’s going to act like she doesn’t need maternity leave?
And, does Mayer have a responsibility to advocate for the rest of working parents?
Some, like Mia Freedman, writing on the blog Mamamia, have laughed off Mayer’s expectations, saying they are the unrealistic fantasies of a neophyte. She also expected to take a few weeks off and work from home after the baby was born, Freedman wrote, but only because, like Mayer, she had no idea how much time recovery and infant care would consume.
Others have been more critical, suggesting that Mayer would do better by all working parents if she declared that she would take a lengthier leave.
Journalist Linda K. Wertheimer responded to my earlier post on Mayer’s appointment that Mayer “didn’t do working women any favors by saying she would simply ‘work throughout’ those first weeks after giving birth, then return to work.”
On the Today Moms blog, Pamela Sitt wrote an open letter to Mayer that included the line: I’m “really glad I don’t work for you.”
On the blog Mommyish, Lindsay Cross wrote: “I can’t help but be nervous about the attention that this choice will get. I don’t like the idea that people will use this as ammunition to say that maternity leave isn’t necessary ...
“For me, Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave announcement is a little like the models that hop back on the catwalk a week after giving birth. I’m happy for them that they’re able to accomplish such a feat, but it makes me worried about the expectations set for the rest of us. ... While it may not be a big issue for Marissa Mayer, maternity leave is still something that women everywhere are fighting to guarantee for new mothers. I hope that one woman’s personal choice won’t undercut that fight.”
The United States is woefully behind most other first world countries when it comes to parental benefits.
In a recent report by Save the Children that ranked mothers’ well-being globally, the United States ranked 25th in the world, between Belarus and the Czech Republic. Part of our poor score was attributed to the lack of mandated paid maternity leave.
The report did not rate paternity leave, but as a reader of my last Mayer post noted, American fathers who want to take leave are even worse off than mothers.
Most companies adhere only to the minimum legal requirement for either parent — 12 weeks of unpaid family leave is offered in companies with 50 or more employees.
Only about 24 percent offer any paid family leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management annual benefits survey.
The most generous companies, tracked by a different survey by Working Mother magazine, offer, on average, seven weeks of paid leave.
In other words, the landscape for a working new parent is a financially barren one. Or, as Working Mother’s editorial director Jennifer Owens put it to me, “It is unconscionable that so many American working moms still don’t have access to paid family leave.”
One might have thought more mothers in power positions might finally begin to remedy this. But Marissa Mayer might defy expectations on this front, too.
What do you think? Does Marissa Mayer have a responsibility to take more leave? Is it fair to expect her to stand up for policies that affect working parents?