Answer by Gayle Laakmann Mcdowell, author and former Software Engineer at Google, on Quora.
Marissa Mayer doesn’t and shouldn’t have to set a good example. But to the extent that she inadvertently does, she actually sets a wonderful example for women by choosing to take only limited leave. She sends a message that not all women are the same, and that babies aren’t just the women’s responsibility.
Different Input, Different Output
See, the thing with a choice like how much leave to take: it’s a personal choice that every mother needs to make for herself. A mother’s choice will take into account things like:
- her career
- her financial situation
- her partner’s career
- her desire to care for newborns
- her ability to hire or get help
- her partner’s parental leave
- breastfeeding decisions
- her health
- her baby’s health
- other children at home
To impose one person’s decision on another person’s, when any or all of these factors are different, is not just unfair; it’s illogical. Different input leads to different output.
It’s particularly illogical to generalize from Marissa Mayer to all women. She very likely has round-the-clock help just for the baby, plus additional help for other household things. She makes a lot of money and she’s in a particularly important role. It’s ridiculous to act like her decisions reflect anything about the expectations for, say, the typical female software developer who works for her.
A Great Example
If you do decide to inappropriately hold her up as some sort of example for “all women,” then she’s actually setting a great example. What’s important for women, for the tech industry, and for the country is sending a message that everyone is different.
As a woman — in tech — with a young kid and another one on the way, I can say that the expectation is definitely not “oh, you must go back to work ASAP.” That’s the expectation on fathers.
We don’t need another woman sending a message that it’s OK to not work, permanently or for an extended period of time. That’s already the norm (at least within highly paid jobs). Society has that message, loud and clear.
What the U.S. needs to learn (again, in highly paid jobs) is that you can’t generalize all women and that, yes, some women can and will go back to work immediately. And that choice is OK.
I’m pregnant, self-employed and have several consulting clients right now. They assume that I’m not really going to be working for a while after I have my child. Of course they don’t ask — it’s often seen as a no-no topic in the U.S. — so there’s just this lingering assumption until I awkwardly bring it up. And that sucks, frankly.
By Marissa Mayer taking limited leave, she helps clear the way for people like me who choose to make a similar choice. She makes my clients question their assumption that of course I’ll take months off. That’s a great thing because, you know, we’re all different. And that’s OK.
Babies: Not Just for Women Anymore!
Even the fact that we’re asking this suggests an issue with the U.S. culture. How many male CEOs have had kids? Where is the “controversy” around their not taking much leave?
People don’t ask because it’s assumed that the babies are the mom’s responsibility. It’s OK for the dad to not take much time off because, hey, he’s not really that important, is he? The mom, on the other hand: the babies are for her. They’re her responsibility, right?
That’s the message that’s being sent when we create a “controversy” from her personal decisions, and that’s horrendously unfair to both mothers and fathers. We need to stop denigrating the role of fathers in society and we need to stop assuming that the woman is the “primary” parent.
Anyone can be the “primary” parent — or they can even be equals!
But at the end of the day, it’s her choice.
Ultimately, regardless of what “message” she sends, it’s unfair to expect her to make a choice that is not right for her. It’s her choice, and it’s important that we respect that. Women (and minorities) need to have the freedom to make their own choices without being “an example” — the same freedom we grant to straight, white males.
This question originally appeared on Quora: Is the Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, setting up a good example by saying she will be back to work in 2 weeks after delivery?
More from Quora:
- What are the pros and cons of an unlimited paternal leave program, such as the one Netflix has just implemented?
- What are the strengths & weaknesses of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergrey Bin, Marrisa Meyer, Dennis Ritchie and Bill Gates?
- Why do Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have such different views on the role of gender in the tech industry?