Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave is her problem. Choosing her as a role model is yours.

Marissa Mayer

So Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo announced (yet again) that she was taking limited time off for the birth of her twin girls in December. “Limited time” here refers to two weeks. Yes, you heard right.

Depending on where you are in the spectrum of mothers, babies, careers and work-life balance, this is either a complete blow or totally motivating. This is also incongruous at a time when companies like Flipkart in India have just started warming up to extending maternity leave

I have been hearing a lot of “how dare she?” and “what does this mean for mothers?” and “how can she set a precedent?” and other such outcries on social media and it’s amusing that history has repeated itself so soon. The reactions were not very different three years ago, and I had responded here to Mayer’s first micro maternity leave announcement.

A few months later, in a lean-in blog post, Mayer explained the circumstances surrounding her decision:

After 13 years of really hard work at Google, I had been envisioning a glorious six-month maternity leave. However, if I took the new job, a long leave couldn’t happen. The responsibilities were too big, and time was of the essence—it just wouldn’t be fair to the company, the employees, the board, or the shareholders for me to be in the role, but out for an extended period of time.’

Soon after that, she issued an internal memo to her employees on introducing a ban on working from home. Needless to say, the memo sparked a debate on whether remote working leads to greater productivity and job satisfaction or kills creativity and is just a chance to slack off.

Is this the same woman? Doesn’t this sound dichotomous?

But then, motherhood is the biggest dichotomy anyway. There are ways and ways of negotiating it and there is no right or wrong about any of them. There are those like my mother who get on with it, leaving the baby with family and formula (those were the glorious joint family days). She was a school teacher, so her hours were good. She loved her job and retired from the same school 36 years later. There are others who do daycare, nannies, grandparents, or a combination thereof, depending on what their sanity or salary can afford. There are those, who like me, decide that jobs can be got back, but baby time can’t, and plunge into full-time baby care.

If you do the former, you are often looked at sceptically as someone who chose career over motherhood, money over emotional bonding, bottle over breast. If you choose the latter, you are looked upon as someone who was using motherhood as an excuse to sit at home and ‘do nothing’, who is an emotional sucker waiting to be manipulated by her child, who wanted out of the rat race and has found her way.

Not that quitting work is an option for most women – you need a partner who is willing to put the bread on the table, sometimes jam and cheese too, for an indefinite period of time, while you play primary caregiver to the baby.

So damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Your reasons for going back could be as compelling as your reasons for staying at home. Money, of course is the biggest reason, considering that two incomes are better than one, now that there is an additional member in the family.

What about caregiving to the newborns, you may ask. It’s evident that Mayer won’t be breastfeeding her twins (most of the times, twins are not breastfed anyway as there is never enough milk). It’s silly to even ask if she has support because she can afford the entire daycare industry. She can build one right next door to Yahoo if she so chooses.

And why is no one questioning her husband’s paternity leave? Isn’t that equally important in a power couple scenario? Why is he not being judged for that?

It strikes me as odd that we are discussing Marissa Mayer only when it comes to her maternity leave, and never for the work she does (which must be a lot, as Yahoo! CEO). And that, I think is a greater crime against feminism than questioning the signs she is sending out, coming to work two weeks after popping twins.

If she joined Yahoo as CEO when she was 28 weeks pregnant, her game is clearly different from millions of other mommies. So why judge her for playing what is clearly not every woman’s game?

Of course, the US has a dismal maternity leave policy and surely the law in the country should be strengthened to guarantee paid parental leave. But the jury on when is it okay for mothers to return to work post-childbirth is still out there. I would certainly judge her if she applied the same rules to her employees, but she hasn’t done that yet, has she? In fact she has changed maternity leave policies and granted eight weeks or more of paid maternity leave.

The point is, none of you is Marissa Mayer, and so your motivations will never be same as hers; her stakes are very different from yours. She signed up to be the CEO of Yahoo, not a maternity leave role model; she is only doing what it takes to keep her equity as a CEO intact. If she has decided that much rides on her FaceTime with the investors of a much crumbling Yahoo, that is her strategy. It need not be yours.

Marissa Mayer is not asking you to give up your maternity leave for your career. If that’s what you are reading as a subtext of her decision, that is clearly your problem, not hers.

(A version of this post appeared in indusparent.com)

(image courtesy: glamour.com)

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Babies in the time of Flipkart

Every day, on social media and often, in real life, I interact with several mothers, thanks to my blog and columns on parenting. Most of them are clever, bright, funny, passionate, feminist, zesty, have very clear views on politics and the economy, know their films, know their books, know their children and are hugely resourceful and enterprising. A few have real ‘jobs’, but most are winging it as food bloggers, book reviewers, children’s activity conductors, dress designers, script writers, home bakers, freelance journalists, trainers and teachers.

At some point, all of them had formal jobs, jobs they were good at, jobs they tried hard to keep, but sooner or later, gave up, in pursuit of work-life balance (read: raising children). I am sure they all gave their best shot at having it all, before they redefined their ‘all’.

Six years into motherhood, one attempt at going back to the race (when my child was 4), one attempt at running away to a hill with my child to teach in a school (so I have daycare sorted), and I am still figuring out how to wing it.

The question always is: What if?

What if all these women, me included, had employers who were empathetic about their post-child status, what if their HR departments had policies that were more flexible, what if they all had access to the most phenomenal day care. Would they still be doing what they are doing?

I had heard, of course, that a few corporates, IT companies, banks and NGOs were sympathetic to this transition and did offer extended leave, sabbaticals, flexitime options, consultancy options and even day-care facilities. But by and large, women had come to terms with the fact that there were compromises post baby and putting career on hold is probably one of them.

One mother I knew, who quit her job as COO of a bank soon after the baby, was magnanimous enough to say that she didn’t expect the organisation to make those compromises for her, nor did she expect to be paid for having a child. I was shocked at the lack of dissent.

Yes, there was a murmur about ‘working from home’, but I had to yet see a respectable organization putting it into practice or paying fairly for it. ‘Flexitime’ was a euphemism for ‘this job is so dull, you may want to throw up’.

Through Talking Tours, a Times of India initiative to get women back to the ramp, I travelled a great deal in 2013-14, meeting hundreds of women from various cities in India, who had been derailed from the workplace because of babydom. Every single one of them cited harsh company policies that eventually shafted them from the workplace.

Enter Flipkart.

This online retailer announced on Monday that it will now offer six months paid leave plus four months of flexible working option with pay to mothers. Above this, it is also offering an extended maternity leave of up to 1 year of career break without pay, after which they can return to available jobs at that point of time.

Among other benefits that are also a part of the new package, women get a transport reimbursement benefit of Rs 600 per day during the last two months of pregnancy. Women are also entitled to a reserved parking slot for 2 months before and after child delivery. Flipkart is also working on a proposal to pay 50% of day care charges at high-standard facilities for children up to 4 years of age.

Is this for real? Where were they when I could have used them?

The Indian Labour Law prescribes a compulsory paid maternity leave of twelve weeks to all female employees. No company is liable to offer anything more. In this context, Flipkart’s move is unprecedented. “Flipkart needs to be able to attract more women talent,” Deepali Tamhane, senior director, product management, said in an interaction with the media, explaining the announcement.

Good on you, I wanted to cheer from the wings.

Others were soon to follow. Samsung electronics which has a 42 % female work force, has plans to allow female workers two years’ paid maternity leave as opposed to one that they currently offer. The move was an effort to support prospective moms, as a Samsung official said on Sunday.

Earlier in March this year, Vodafone offered global maternity equality. Their new policy includes a minimum of 16 weeks fully-paid maternity leave. It was a strategic move to cut the costs incurred when women employees leave to have children. “There are a lot of hidden costs when you lose women to maternity: retraining, recruiting, business disruption,” said Sharon Doherty, the group’s Organisation and People Development Director, who developed the policy.

Virgin Atlantic went further: new dads will be given up to a year’s paternity leave on full salary as part of a new policy unveiled by Richard Branson.

Nice, I thought. It’s time we noticed that fathers make babies too.

In January, You Tube CEO Susan Wojcicki – who believes that maternity leave is good for mothers, babies and business – announced an 18-week fully-paid maternity leave policy. Mothers, she believes, come back to the workforce with newer insights post a longer break.

But elsewhere, companies still have an all-or-none policy and are largely unwilling to negotiate working terms for a new mother. I know several women who were forced to quit as a result of this. It is as though organisations do not want to acknowledge the logistics that comes with motherhood; it is treated as a sort of exotic inconvenience and they would rather you deal with it separately from work.

Just before I went on maternity leave at one of India’s largest media houses where I had been working for three and a half years, I had a glimpse into my future at work. A new mommy returned after her three-month maternity leave, hoping to get an extension. She was in for a rude shock when she was told that it wouldn’t be possible, neither was flexitime an option. It was all or none. Since she was still in her postpartum melancholia, and hadn’t yet figured out baby-care and other such, she did the first thing that came to her mind – she quit. Two months later, the same thing happened to another mom.

We don’t want to set a precedent,’ both were told, although the nature of their jobs could have easily allowed flexitime. It conjured up images of all the women in the organisation thronging to claim maternity perks.

How a company with a fifty percent female workforce had no contingency plan for new mothers was difficult to digest. Like it was some natural calamity they were totally unprepared for. No matter how resilient you are, most women are in shock at the callousness at work on returning from their maternity leave. In several subtle and not-so-subtle ways, being pregnant at the workplace seems to indicate that you no longer ‘count’, that you are now just someone who is ‘passing through’, that you may or may not continue working, that you might be ‘too preoccupied with baby thoughts’ to focus on your career. What you don’t realise is that right from the time you were pregnant, the tone for your eventual marginalisation has been set.

Incidentally, when I returned from my 12-week maternity leave, I was at first shocked, and then relieved to find out that I had been transferred from a pivotal role with one section of the paper to a not-so-pivotal one in another section, a fact told to me rather casually on the phone by the HR department a few days before resuming work. My new boss was clearly not happy to see me; evidently she had no say in the matter of my transfer. ‘So why did you opt for this section?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t asked, I was told.’

It was not a great way to begin.

She asked me nothing about the baby, how I was doing, or coping. Instead, she said, ‘I actually thought you wouldn’t come back. I stayed home for eight years after my daughter was born. Do you really need the job?’

It was not the greatest welcome back line, but I swallowed it.

Six months later, I quit.

Antara, a friend of mine pointed out that by spending time rearing her child, a mother is actually contributing to the country’s GDP, because it is these children who will add to the productivity of the nation. Turns out my company didn’t get the memo on this.

KPMG recently did a study about the positive economic impact of giving more maternity benefits. According to them, the costs of a more generous maternity provision were outweighed by the costs of replacing women leaving the workforce. I used to often wonder why couldn’t companies factor in motherhood when hiring women and have policies laid down so that it’s not a case-to-case negotiation with one’s superior? Why can’t pregnancy and motherhood be treated as a natural phase of a working woman’s life? It’s not like having a child is a sort of hobby or incurable disease the woman has suddenly developed.

Things are looking brighter with all these announcements and I do hope it makes smart, successful women reconsider their position vis-à-vis having children.

My friend Rebecca and I were having a chat a few weeks ago about babies. She is 32, has been married for 8 years and the pressure to have a baby is high. But she is in a great place in her life, having just taken up an entrepreneurial venture and flying high with it. From being the eager one in the duo to have a baby, she is now unsure and turned to me for advice. I found myself telling her, “First, you have to find a really sexy way to stay relevant. And it can’t be cupcakes.”

Now, it seems, there is Flipkart.

(A version of this post appeared on catchnews.com)

 

Fast forward mommy: What Marissa Mayer’s blink-and-miss maternity leave means to the rest of the world

Marissa Mayer is a woman who many love to hate – for having more zeroes in her salary than most people can ever dream of, for staying in the game through her pregnancy, for, in fact, raising the career bar by being hired as Yahoo CEO when six months pregnant. And now because she is back at work two weeks after having her baby, thereby availing the world’s shortest maternity leave. Time magazine called it the “blink-and-it’s-over ” maternity leave.
The internet is abuzz with debates over the sort of precedent she is setting for other working women. And, of course, a lot of ominous warnings are floating around about the perils of underestimating the challenges of motherhood and how she has no clue what’s coming to her.

The outraged argue that when women in power give the impression that maternity leave is dispensable, it is quite likely to send the wrong signals – that it’s easy, that taking time off is an unnecessary indulgence, that other women are making too big a deal of early motherhood months and that they are perhaps not so serious about their careers. Is the Mayer move then reflecting badly on other new mommies who choose to take time off to nurture their babies before getting back to work?

“This is a complex question that really has no easy answers. Are women who choose to take leave then, not committed enough to their careers?” asks Shilpa Phadke, professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a mother to a two year-old. “On the one hand, one must support the right of individual women to make choices that they see as best for them, but equally one must consider what this means for the already fragile rights of women to maternity leave especially in countries such as the US. ”

The US maternity leave policy is rather dismal – it grants 12 weeks of ‘unpaid’ leave, as opposed to Canada which grants paid leave up to 15 weeks and a longer duration of unpaid leave if required. India, for the most part has a 12-week paid leave policy although some companies grant as much as 16-20 weeks. Britain, on the other hand, grants upto 52 weeks of leave, of which 39 are paid. In the rest of Europe, women can take as much as three years off to raise their newborns. Most employers like to claim that they are supportive of new mothers but it is obvious that women are grudged this ‘perk’ – by their male colleagues and even other women colleagues who either opted out of motherhood or stayed single. And perhaps that is why the urge to prove that they can get back in the game sooner than anyone else.

Outside of the Mayer universe, pregnancy is usually regarded as a really expensive hobby, a permanent state of impairment. For some women, the price to pay is their careers, for some, their children’s well-being and emotional security and to most, a race to get back in the game. Staying on top of things post baby is a struggle for all women, no matter what resources they have at their disposal. Perhaps that is why the three-month maternity leave is a key factor in helping new mothers with the transitioning from the cocoon of the nursery to the outside world. The choices are usually harsh. You either rush back to work when your baby is a few weeks old, leaving it in the care of family or strangers. Or, you stay a little longer to nurture them and return when you are both ready. But that is often the tricky part. When are both ready? At six months? At one year? Longer?

The fact remains that the longer you stay away from the race, the harder it is to get back. We all work out our own plan Bs – work from home, freelance, work flexitime, focus on our babies for a few years and not think about it. But these remain, at best, plan Bs. If all things were conducive, women would have liked their lives to go back to being exactly the same.

“I think all around the world, women have the fear that they will not be able to get back to their career with a small child to care for. That may the reason women are wrenching themselves away from their newborns. It is sad that women have to deny themselves care and rest just to prove that they are as good at their work, ” says Nigamaja, physiotherapist and childbirth educator.

While you are away, HR is busy computing your non-profitability. Barring a few foreign banks and MNCs, day-care is still an alien concept in India, flexitime is the biggest scam as far as your pay packet is concerned and breast pumps are still looked at as unidentified flying objects in most offices.

Australia-based Ruth Malik, who runs a birth support NGO in India, says the choices women make must vary according to individual situations. “I hope that Mayer does not become a dominant role model and women feel pressured to reach these dizzy heights. While I may make decisions differently, I feel the important thing is that it is her right to choose. Plus, she can afford all the support she can get” says Malik.

Gayatri Deshpande, a software professional and mother, says she chooses not to be judgemental about Mayer’s choices. She also applauds Yahoo for hiring a pregnant CEO in the first place. “Her choices must be based on who she is as a person. The position carries the weight of the well-being of employees and customers. Maybe she is a superwoman and has put in place a strong delegation plan, ” she says.

We don’t exactly know what Mayer’s plans for infant-management are. “I like to stay in the rhythm of things, ” is what she is reported to have told Fortune magazine. We must not forget that Marrisa Mayer is not a regular woman trying to keep her job, she is a super-duper star. She is a CEO, crisis management is her middle name.

Sonali Shivlani, a pregnancy and lactation counsellor, sums up the debate. “I really don’t believe that only stay-at-home women make good mothers. What makes good moms are women who are first satisfied with themselves – a feeling with gives them the space to attend to their children more wholeheartedly, ” says Shivlani.

(This article first appeared in the Times of India Crest edition on 20th Oct, 2012 under my byline. Link to the article is here:  http://www.timescrest.com/society/fast-forward-mommy-9052)