Women@Work

Who says you can’t be a good mom and a CEO?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc., smiles during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 in San Francisco, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2012. Mayer is trying to drive a turnaround at Yahoo and has said she plans to return to work a week or two after giving birth to a baby boy on Sept. 30. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer joined the ranks of celebrity mothers this week and the arrival of her baby launched a new episode in the never-ending drama on whether women can have it all.

To critics, even advocates for working mothers, the brouhaha about Ms. Mayer’s decision to keep working right after the birth of her son and return to the office in a week’s time, comes across as either unnatural or damaging to other women in business.

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It challenges our expectations of women and their evolving role in the business world and that makes people uncomfortable.

I say bring it on.

Ms. Mayer is living out exactly what advocates for women in business have been striving for. She chose to take a high-profile job while pregnant and to combine a challenging role with motherhood in a way she deems appropriate. She works for a progressive company that didn’t assume she would want to step back after the birth of her child.

Freedom to choose in an environment clear of preconceived notions can only be seen as progress for women in business.

Let’s examine the anti-maternal viewpoint, which surfaced in Slate’s XX Factor blog. Calling Ms. Mayer’s choice “a mistake,” the author hinted that while the decision should be hers, she should want to do things differently.

Although no one is directly saying it, not wanting to stay at home with a newborn wreaks havoc with conventional thinking about what it means to be a woman.

“Women are expected to be caregivers first and foremost, and to only turn to the world of paid employment after ensuring that they have achieved stability in the domestic realm,” May Friedman, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Social Work, said in an e-mail interview. “Like many deeply held beliefs, this one doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny.”

Statistically speaking, studies show the majority of women with children under the age of 16 work outside the home, although for some reason, social norms find this palatable only if there is a financial imperative. This leads to judgments from strangers and co-workers alike, who believe they know what’s best for your child.

Welcome to our world, Ms. Mayer.

“As a female CEO with two young children, I feel as though we are constantly judged on our ambition because of our gender,” Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR, a management-consulting firm in Calgary, said in an e-mail interview.

Formerly a vice-president of human resources at a large Canadian company, Ms. Carreau worked part-time just her first child was born, and returned to full-time when he turned three months old. She went back to work two months after the birth of her second child and travelled across the country with her young daughter and their nanny. Ms. Carreau said the decision to continue working after her children were born helped improve her business skills and made her a better mother for her children, now aged seven and five.

Children of working mothers are no worse for wear. A study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found no evidence that maternal employment has an impact on the quality of parenting during the first four-and-a-half years of a child’s life. A 2010 British study found that the ideal scenario for children occurred when both parents lived at home and were gainfully employed.

As for the argument that Ms. Mayer’s decision will undermine the feminist movement because it sets unrealistic expectations, I respectfully disagree. Her choice illustrates that women – even pregnant ones – don’t lose ambition the moment they deliver. I hope she inspires more companies to entertain the idea of interviewing pregnant women for “stretch” roles – advanced positions that they can grow into. Had I been offered a fabulous stretch role while pregnant, I would likely have cut my maternity leave as soon as possible.

If Ms. Mayer were to take a lengthy maternity leave, it “would lead others in the business community to yet again question whether women are suited to the CEO job and whether they can actually handle both the executive job and parenting,” explained Souha Ezzedeen, associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto. “Many still doubt that, and that’s why the glass ceiling persist.”

Ultimately, the media circus surrounding Ms. Mayer’s work-life choices thinly disguises an underlying bias about a woman’s ability to manage a demanding job and her role as a parent.

“If this were a male CEO, whose wife gave birth, would there be the same level of commentary about his decision to go back to work the next day? Unequivocally, no,” said Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

Which brings us to Ms. Mayer’s husband, angel investor Zachary Bogue. Perhaps he plans to stay at home with their newborn, or to oversee their childcare solutions or maybe, like his wife, he’ll just go back to work. Whatever the Mayer-Bogues decide to do, I’m sure their son will fare just fine.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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