I want to thank Marissa Mayer

I would like to start this blog on a note that will probably surprise most who read it. I want to thank Marissa Mayer for making and announcing her decision just as she did.

No, not because I agree with her! I am sure that I don’t! Even if I could afford it, I would not choose to return to work two weeks after giving birth and I certainly expect the organization I work for to support my decision not to—for moral rather than purely legal reasons!

Rather, I thank Marissa Mayer for her choice and her announcement because it has placed this incredibly important and complex family decision front and centre in the ongoing dialogue about whether we have the kind of professional environments necessary to support the full and equitable engagement of women in all sectors of our societies. An engagement that benefits all by reducing the loss of an incredible amount of female talent, perspective, and influence so desperately needed.

As I have stressed repeatedly, women do not chose to be lesser contributors in professional environments—whether the reduction of their contribution occurs because of historical context, discriminatory practices or legal settings, or because of implicit or explicit biases that still pervade organizations. We want to be, and have every right to expect to be, equally recognized and rewarded players!

However, this is a right that have to we continue to fight for. And it is a fight that requires the active support of women who have achieved great things in spite of continued pervasive biases that had to be overcome by them along the way. Whether or not they want to be seen as such, these women are influencers and role models, and they have to shoulder this responsibility!

Clearly, Marissa Mayer is such a person. Her statements and actions have enormous influence. The extensive debate that we have all been following and contributing to around her maternity choice clearly demonstrates this!

The challenge we are now faced with is that we cannot remove a woman’s right to make a choice that she believes is right for her by insisting she make a choice that we consider would be right for us! We cannot fight for a work environment that respects and encourages diversity—whether of gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious belief—and simultaneously insist that individuals conform to particular stereotypes. The presumption that all women have the same attitude and wish to make the same choices about work-life balance, about domestic responsibilities and roles, and about the nature of their commitment to organizations is exactly what we need to rally against!

So, where do I stand on Marissa Mayer's decision and her statement?

In spite of the fact that I would certainly not make the choice to only take two-weeks of maternity leave, I am challenged by the idea that my choice should be forced on her. I am also uncomfortable with the idea that her inescapable role model status changes this right to choose. Surely, she still has the right to make a decision that is right for her and her family! Surely, we have to support her right to choose as long as the choice she makes is not one driven by a fear of negative professional consequences because of a stereotypical male-dominated corporate culture!

If we accept this premise then the question we are left with is: What is the unstated subtext to the short statement announcing her decision to take two-weeks of maternity leave?

The first interpretation is that a fuller understanding of her choice could be: I am taking two weeks maternity leave … and I believe that this is sufficient for a mother who wishes to ascend to the highest leadership level in an organization.

The second fuller interpretation could be: I am taking two weeks maternity leave … because this is right and affordable for my family. However, I stand by the right of women to make maternity choices that are appropriate for them without fearing that their choice will adversely impact the company’s perception of their commitment to their careers or to its actions in supporting them achieve these. I also acknowledge that my choice may be considered extreme by many and no organization should implicitly or explicitly expect such a decision of others, whether they are junior employees or senior executives.

If Marissa Mayer's statement was short because she secretly holds to the first of the subtexts I articulate above then I am truly disappointed. In my estimation she would then not be the kind of role model that we need. Her beliefs would not be aligned with the pursuit of a professional eco-system that accommodates what is right and different about women. Rather they would be consistent with an approach that seeks to change women so they can more easily fit into the current biased male dominated eco-system.

If the brevity of Marissa Mayer's statement merely reflected a choice not to include beliefs that are actually aligned with the second of the subtexts I articulate above then I am more hopeful. I am more hopeful because she has then failed as a role model principally because she failed to appreciate how important it was for her to place her decision in context—to explain that it was motivated by a personal choice only!

This is something she can correct. This is something she should correct.

So why did I begin this blog by thanking Marissa Mayer? I did so because her statement and choice furthers our understanding and expectations of role models!

Not just the role models who are CEOs of large companies or senior political figures in our societies, but the role model that each of us has to become—mothers to their children, teachers to their students, middle managers to newer recruits. Each of us has to recognize that we are striving to achieve two desirable outcomes. The first being to serve as standard-bearers for those who look to us for signals, guidance, and influence. The second being the right for all of us to make choices that are correct personally even when they don’t fully conform to majority perceptions.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, organisations are engines of society. We have to work jointly and individually to ensure that life-events that confront us all are woven into organisation policies in a healthy and considerate way. As this is done more deliberately and committedly, we will see more women rise to the highest levels of their organisations and do so across all functions. Our influencers and role models are crucial contributors to this transformation—particularly when they are world-recognized CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—and they need to always keep this in mind when making choices and expressing opinions.

However, each of us also has the obligation not to deny those we elevate to role model status the same right of choice and right to full participation that we are demanding for ourselves!

Dianne Bevelander MBA, PhD
Professor of Management Education
Executive Director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations

 (Image source: By Eirik Solheim (IMG_4179 at Flickr) , via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons)

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