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Pregnant Pause or Maternity Leave? What Marissa Mayer's Maternity Leave Plans Say About the Current Climate for Women in the Workplace

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The big story in business news last week was that Marissa Mayer would be the new CEO of Yahoo. Because Mayer is pregnant and due in October, the story quickly turned into Round # [insert made-up number here followed by the word "bajillion"] of the debate over whether it is okay for women to "have it all."

That question strikes me as both premature and pejorative. It's sort of like asking how big the impact on the retail sector of the economy will be once women start spending all that extra money from getting paid the same as men. First of all, women still don't get paid the same as men. And second of all, the assumption that we'd just blow all the money on handbags and shoes reinforces the stereotyping that continues to prevent us from getting equal pay to begin with.

Similarly, framing the question as whether women can "have it all" makes it sound like women are somehow acting like selfish divas; like we're demanding unreasonable things to which we are not entitled -- like paid leave for pedicures. While the current debate may be ostensibly about Mayer and Yahoo, it's impossible to ignore the broader question at play in this discussion.

When you stop and think about it, the "all" that everyone is asking whether women can have boils down to two basic things: 1. Work that is more of a career than a job and 2. Children.
In the 1960s, the question used to be whether it was okay for women to work. Before long, the changing economic reality that it increasingly took two incomes to make ends meet answered that question in the affirmative.

By the 1970s, the question evolved into whether women could have jobs other than those that were seen both as socially acceptable and temperamentally suitable given their gender; in other words, "nurturing" jobs in fields like nursing and education.

By the 1980s, most of society accepted the notion that women could be things like doctors, lawyers and executives. But this progress came at a price. The assumption developed that in exchange for having careers, women had to forfeit the right to have children. Women could have kids or women could have a career, but they couldn't have both.

Society was willing to overlook the fact that women were NOT men and nonetheless permit them to reach higher rungs on the career ladder -- rungs that had always been reserved exclusively for men- - provided that these women at least acted like men in certain key ways. Men don't give birth. Men don't take maternity leave. Men don't pump breast milk. Men don't stay home when their kids are sick. In short, if women wanted to have careers similar to the ones men have always enjoyed, women were expected to act like men. A fair number of women accepted these terms and some moved into key positions as a result.

The last bit of "progress" for women in the higher offices of the American workplace has been made by women who sought to prove that women could have both careers and children. These women set out to do everything that men do in the workplace, plus whatever is absolutely necessary for women to do to have children -- but not a smidge more, lest they be perceived more like women and moms and less like their male executive counterparts. These are the women who not only work all the way up to the second they go into labor, but also work on their laptops through labor and delivery and return to the office the next week.

"Balancing" career and motherhood in this manner sends the message that having a baby is no big deal -- it's as simple as sneaking off to the dentist's office in the afternoon for a quick teeth whitening session. You'll be back -- looking better than ever -- before anyone even notices that you're gone.

When I was a young associate at a large law firm in the 1990s, it seemed like every big firm had exactly one woman partner, and that she had gotten to where she was by following that very strategy. I remember one woman partner in particular who gave birth one weekday morning, but made it a point not to miss a conference that afternoon, even though it meant calling in from her hospital bed. At least that was how the legend went.

Law firm management and recruiting committees pointed to these women partners as role models for the younger female associates, holding them up as pioneers who had already blazed a trail for the rest of us. But most of us felt these partners had made our road harder by establishing that anything more than a week-long maternity leave was tantamount to milking the system.

The national discussion over whether pregnancy and motherhood will impair Marissa Mayer's ability perform her duties as CEO -- or conversely, whether her duties as CEO will make her unable to be a good mom -- makes it obvious that more progress in workplace equality is long overdue. And Marissa Mayer could be just the woman to induce it.

But in response to questions about her pregnancy, Mayer has said that she plans to limit her maternity leave to a few weeks and work throughout it. In other words, she is following in the footsteps of the women partners who supposedly served as role models for me when I was fresh out of law school. That's so 1991.

For decades, there has been a false debate raging among women as to which job is more challenging and important, being a mom or being a professional. This debate is as pointless and divisive as arguing over whether blonds really do have more fun. And getting goaded into arguments that serve no other purpose but to divide us conquers any hope of making further progress in the workplace. Notice that you never hear men debating the relative importance and difficulty of being a dad versus having a career. The truth is both parenting and careers are challenging and valuable and hair color doesn't determine how much fun someone has.

By cutting her maternity leave short and pledging to work all the way through it, Mayer is effectively taking sides in this pointless debate rather than rising above it. By prioritizing her job as CEO and minimizing her maternity leave, she is sending the message that having a baby is not that big of a deal. In making this choice, she is passing up an opportunity to do some real good, both for her family individually as well as for women collectively.

Instead, Mayer should take the CEO job and take a real maternity leave. That way, she would demonstrate that both her parenting and her profession are equally important to her, and that while she will most certainly have to balance these two things, she doesn't have to choose one over the other.

Some women are CEOs -- and that's awesome. Some women are moms -- and that's phenomenal. And some women -- like Marissa Mayer will be when October rolls around -- are both CEOs and moms. And that's both awesome and phenomenal.

Now that that's settled, can we get back to arguing about something that really matters, like how Angelina Jolie is so much better than Jennifer Aniston?