3 Sep 2015

Motherhood, Work and Marissa Mayer

"I don't think that I consider myself a feminist. . . I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable. . . but I don't have, I think, the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that comes with that."

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

It's easy to portray feminism as humourless, whiny and unreasonable, and subscribe to the philosophy of ruthless individualism that says "I'm alright, ergo any other woman complaining is just being pathetic." There's probably no greater example of this when a wealthy, educated white woman implies that feminism is for women with a "chip on their shoulder." Or perhaps there is - when this woman announces she only intends to take as much "limited time off" after giving birth to twins as she did with her last pregnancy (a fortnight) and "work throughout" her pregnancy.

The fact said woman is expected to make a statement at all about her plans demonstrates exactly why we still need feminism - did anyone ask Mark Zuckerburg how he'll combine family and work after the recent announcement that his wife is pregnant, or how much time he intends to take off for paternity leave? Have they fuck. The fact one woman is being held up and scrutinised as the ultimate example of how to combine motherhood and work also demonstrates why we need feminism - because we still treat people who manage to be CEOs and mothers as special and interesting cases, rather than the norm. In the rush to condemn Mayer for behaving like a robot, for shitting on other women, for making the need for maternity leave seem unreasonable and indulgent, I haven't seen anyone ask whether perhaps her husband intends to take a more involved role in parenting their twins, freeing her up to return to work. The focus remains on women's actions, and on finding them wanting. Until that changes, feminism remains necessary - even if those who enjoy the gains of feminism while publicly distancing themselves from the movement would like to pretend otherwise.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the work of feminism remains in its infancy than the battleground of motherhood and work. As someone who intends to remain childfree for life, I often feel like I've gotten off easy; I'll never have to endure any of these shocking experiences, from being insidiously squeezed out of my job, to simply being sacked or made redundant on completely specious grounds, all for the crime of trying to combine mothering with work. True, I'll still be looked at as a womb on legs by many employers, and suffer the resulting discrimination - as one respondent says, "It’s obvious employers don’t want to hire women who are in their 30s out of fear they’ll disappear on maternity leave," and several other report that employers aren't shy of asking women about their plans for marriage and motherhood, even though this strikes me as illegal under equality legislation. However, by not having children, I do feel like I'm refusing to give my reproductive labour to a society, and in particular a work culture, that will only punish me for doing so - and that feels like a powerful statement. One I should not need to make if, as some would seductively like to persuade us, feminism's work is truly done and complaining about pregnancy related discrimination is just self-indulgent "negativity," as Marissa Mayer seems to imply.

Ultimately, Marissa Mayer can, should and will do what the hell she wants, and quite rightly. I do question how much of a "choice" it is to take two weeks' maternity leave in a culture that prizes long hours, presenteeism, and inflexible working as signs of commitment, but I also applaud Mayer for having at least extended decent parental leave options to Yahoo employees, when the USA is notoriously behind the rest of the world in terms of lacking any statutory parental pay. Surely the rules affecting employees down on the ground are of far more import (and will hopefully set a precendent for other tech companies) than the choices of one extraordinarily privileged woman? How Meyer intends to manage such short maternity leave is up to her, but one can bet it's not without a hell of a lot of support, and much of it being the kind that money can buy. Most women can't afford a nanny, and don't live in a household where one (or even both) partners can afford to take time off to care for a newborn, and it's their struggles we should be focusing on instead. Marissa Mayer is a red herring; let's stop criticising her life choices and start critiquing the culture that still punishes women for daring to try and combine motherhood and work, banish the phrase "trying to have it all" to the dustbin of history where it should long have been slung (has ANYONE ever accused a man who's a father and an employee of trying to "have it all"?!),  and  promote working policies that allow everyone, regardless of gender, to comfortably adjust to the hurricane that is the arrival of a newborn.

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