Marissa Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo’s CEO is a double-edged sword. It is, on its face, a shot in the arm to the perception of workplace equality and at the same time a reminder of how far we have to go to reach fairness for mothers working outside the home.
It is also a reminder that we need mothers’ voices in elected office to fight for paid family leave, paid sick days, and affordable, accessible healthcare for all families. But who has time to run?
As a mother of a nine-month-old baby and the Executive Director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation with a mission to engage women in politics, I am intimately aware of the balancing act of motherhood and career. It is a daily dance during which we try to stay in step with the responsibilities of being a mom and a manager. One which makes you feel like you’re doing a poor job at everything—being a professional, being a mom, being a wife or partner—interspersed with a few rare moments of feeling like you’ve figured it all out (only to be quickly reminded that you haven’t).
Remarkably absent from Mayer’s comments is an acknowledgment of this fact: It takes serious money, resources, and support to run a company – or a campaign - while on maternity leave.
Forget about the mommy wars. Most working women simply don’t have the support that money buys to work outside the home while caring for their newborn. Women who have to go back to work immediately after their children are born don’t have the flexibility to physically be with their babies. Most women who work at jobs with maternity leave policies don’t have scores of nannies and house cleaners to be on conference calls or the campaign trail all day.
I vividly remember trying to lead one lousy conference call while on maternity leave. I spent the entire previous day nervous that my baby was going to be hungry during the call. How was I going to manage an enormous nursing pillow and balance my baby and the phone while having a coherent conversation with no one on the call being the wiser?
Mayer’s salary and position in the C-suite affords her conveniences many mothers cannot afford—full-time help, flexible hours, ability to work from home. A “working” maternity leave may be possible for a woman with a seven-figure salary and an army of nannies at her disposal. But that’s just not reality for the rest of us.
For women thinking about running for office, managing motherhood is often a barrier to diving in. And while it is critical that more women run for office if we want to change policy, balancing a campaign and a new baby is certainly a rational concern if you aren’t pulling in at least six figures (and most people aren’t).
In many ways, we’re faced with a chicken-and-egg argument. We need more women in office to advocate for policies like paid family leave and paid sick days. But without those policies, fewer women will run. Without resources, the challenges of running for office with a young family are daunting, to say the least.
By dismissing the difficulty of being a superstar employee and mother, Mayer is undermining the challenges women who aren’t highly-paid, high-powered CEOs face. For women whose jobs by their very nature require them to show up at work—retail sales employees, waitresses, or janitors—a paid day off is not an option, let alone working from home.
Let’s not forget how much energy, encouragement, determination, and resources it takes to walk this tightrope of playing the role of working mother. Electing more women to office is a step toward leveling the playing field for all mothers. Now, let’s try to carve out some time to do that.