Public Figures, Private Decisions

While at Grace Hopper Celebration this year, I had a lot of wonderful experiences that challenged me in professional and personal ways. I’m still trying to sort through and articulate a lot of what I saw and heard, but there’s one experience I know how to talk about, and it has to do with the CEO of my company, Marissa Mayer.

As Literally Everybody knows, Marissa Mayer is pregnant and due soon. At Yahoo, we have a very generous maternity/paternity leave policy. On its own a policy may not mean much, but luckily within my team it is greatly encouraged that people take their leave, and they are openly welcomed upon their return. And while I can’t speak for others, I can only assume it’s like this within the company at large.

But leave is not mandatory. It’s not required that people take much or any time off surrounding the birth of a child. It’s a decision each parent must make for themselves, balancing any number of personal and private details of their own lives while making their choices.

Unfortunately, highly visible women like Marissa Mayer don’t seem to have that same luxury of choice.

At Grace Hopper Celebration, I attended a panel on career trajectory, how to move up, when to move on. A member of the audience asked about maternity leave, citing Marissa Mayer’s decision to return to work shortly after birth as something that will impact women everywhere in their own personal decisions.

Unfortunately, that audience member was not wrong in their question. When you have so few female tech c-suite executives, each one of them is held up as an example of how All Women In Tech should construct their own lives. And when you have so few women in tech (26% at last count) your individual decisions regarding maternity leave will be compared to an incredibly small data set.

It frustrated me so much to hear this question being asked. Both because I knew they weren’t wrong to ask it, but also in how one woman’s personal decision was left undefended. I believe that a CEO should have just as much freedom to make her own decisions as I, a software engineer, do. And unlike a CEO, I’m not weighing the stock price of my company against the number of days of leave I take. Each of us has their own personal circumstances, and does the best they can with the options they feel they have.

The core problem here, however, is a numbers game. Women make up too few positions in tech, and too few positions in leadership. As a direct result of that, the actions of one will be translated as the likely actions of the group. If you have one woman on your team and the question of maternity leave comes up, how else will your manager base their judgement on future outcome other than what they’ve heard (few) other women do in other companies in the past?

The obvious, simple, hard solution is to have more women in tech. Eliminate the numbers game. Hire more, promote more. Create environments that recognize and utilize the ways in which women are commonly socialized to behave, instead of demanding that everybody behave one specific way in order to get ahead. Make space for the women who want to take a bit of leave, and the women who want to dive right back in as soon as they can stand. These are personal decisions and everyone should be allowed to make them for themselves.

If we as an industry make a concentrated effort, perhaps someday one woman’s maternity decisions won’t launch a thousand think pieces (including this one ;) ).