So, for about one minute women celebrated Yahoo's hiring as its CEO Marissa Mayer, a pregnant 37-year-old former Google executive. Then, the celebration turned into divided debate over Mayer's announcement that following the birth, she would only take a few weeks off and be working throughout that time. Putting aside the great conundrum of how to measure gender equality (female CEOs? female CEOs who have flextime?), the debate poses a better question. What's so special about maternity leave? Particularly in our technological era?
When I started practicing law in the Stone Age, the 12-week paid maternity leave was seen as the great advance of having women in the workplace and was universal at large law firms. We knew that women in other jobs were not so lucky. And, before BlackBerries and DropBox, when it was even difficult to "dial in to the server," women enjoyed a leave with few, if any, calls from the front. But, that 13th week was a doozie. Once back, you were all in.
But I could see a world in which the 12-week maternity leave was less important, for both good and bad reasons. First, because the expectation would be that you weren't firewalled during that time, and the emails, calls, document sends wouldn't stop. Or second, because even while working "full-time," you could "work from home." So the 13th week didn't have to be a doozie. I sense that Mayer's situation is much more like the first. Even though folks know she just had a baby, they won't stop calling/emailing her, and realistically, no one can take her place as a "temp CEO." For us academics, the I think both the first and second situations hold. I have taught class while someone else held my infant many, many times, knowing that after class was over I could take over where I left off and do much of my job one-handed. But, I've also had law review editors send me edits that needed attention within seven days who weren't very impressed that I had just gotten home from the hospital.
Is it so unrealistic that new moms could respond to work email from the hospital? I have definitely seen new moms updating Facebook from the hospital. There are several ways to view the first weeks/months of mommy/baby time (or daddy/baby time). One is convalescence. But, for most moms that is measured in days. Few surgeries of any kind require three-month recuperation periods, and most deliveries of both flavors see moms going about their business in a few weeks. Someone once told me that the first month off is for the mom, the second month off is for the baby. So, the second way to view extended leave is bonding time. And I definitely have fond memories of staring at babies with no worries about what I needed to be doing. But I also don't think that this time is as firewalled now, even for nonbusiness reasons. Through social media, "staying in" isn't the same as "staying in." So, if we integrate our online life into maternity leave without social stigma, it seems ok to integrate our career life as well. The third way to view leave is merely symbolic: I think my baby is important enough not have to share my mental space with work for this period of time. Well, that would be nice, but it seems like most people don't like to be disconnected for three months, either from work or social media.
I think one person interviewed for the NYT piece summed it up nicely, analogizing one's company or career to another child: "You can think of a lot of moms who have more than one child, and do they ever say, ‘I’m going to stop feeding my older child because I have a newborn’?" Moms of newborns rarely take three months (or weeks) off from life, and for women entrepreneurs or executives who love their jobs, part of their life is their job. So, some moms still tend to other children, cook, read novels, play FB games, and visit with friends, and others keep up with their companies.
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