In mid-July, Marissa Mayer was appointed CEO of Yahoo! Inc. The news of her appointment to the position collided with reports of her pregnancy, bringing discussions of motherhood and business back to streamline news. Today, a Google search for “Yahoo CEO” yielded dozens of relevant results, and many of them specifically discuss Mayer’s pregnancy. Will it affect her work? Did the Yahoo Executive Board know she was pregnant when she was voted into the position? Can Mayer balance motherhood and her professional life? There is also an air of excitement – if Mayer can have a rockin’ professional life in a prestigious position and be a mother, our society is on the cusp of change. Certainly, this is true. But, as always, there are those who question this change.
Last week, my friend sent me an article published in Forbes titled “Why Most Women Can Never be CEO,” by Gene Marks. It was published last October and was met with backlash shortly after that, but it speaks to another theme that has found a home in discussions surrounding Mayer’s appointment: skepticism and hesitation to embrace shifting gender expectations. I was hoping that the Forbes article would be a satirical piece, but instead it was very straightforward. Across the span of two pages, Marks states that most women simply cannot be CEOs because our society does not respect them in a professional light. They are held to a double standard to which they can’t possibly live up. And that’s that. End of story. This position is not an uncommon one, and for that reason it needs to be analyzed in full.
The biggest disappointment of this article (and there are many) is that Marks succumbs to this status quo. He recognizes that the system as it stands puts his wife at a huge disadvantage professionally and will do the same to his daughter, but does nothing to challenge it: “When my wife and I were younger and our baby would cry in the middle of the night I would put a pillow…over my head.  That stopped the crying for sure,” he says. “My wife (who was working full time by the way) was the one who got out of bed to care for the child,” he continues. He shows no remorse for being useless in this situation. In fact, he seems quite proud of all of that extra sleep he got. The essence of this article – starting with the title – is that women will never be CEOs, and that is that. We can demand better, but this article, along with this line of thought in general, takes the easy road out. It allows and even encourages readers to say, “Yup, these things are true and they are never going to change. This is just the way it is.” This rhetoric is nothing short of a cop out.
Marks’ blatant acceptance of the status quo – from the lack of shared parenting responsibilities to the overt sexism in the business world – is nothing out of the ordinary. That’s why it’s called “the status quo.” This piece fails to recognize women’s knowledge of these going-ons. The sexism he points out is not a news flash to anyone, trust me.  It is no secret that comments are made about skirt length and revealing shirts. The pressures of full-time work and full-time parenthood are not a new phenomenon. It is, however, often referred to as a “new problem,” one that has only recently become relevant to women. In reality, this public discussion has been shifting for generations. Word on the street used to be that women were not in the business world because they were too emotional, and that made them incapable of working professionally. Besides, people said, if they go to work, who will raise the children?
Then, the lines of thought shifted. “You want to have a professional career?” women were told. “Fine, work. But you also have to be a full-time parent because if you don’t, who will raise the children?”
Now, as my own mother often reminds me, there is a shift occurring again, away from this “Superwoman” rhetoric. There is recognition that women are capable of being part of the business world intellect wise. They could work in theory, but their jobs as mothers are expected to come first and it’s impossible for them to succeed in both because there are just not enough hours in the day. People are still saying, “Who will raise the children?” This article fully embraces this line of thought. “Children need their mommies,” Mack states, “and most moms I know, whether they have a full-time job or not, want to be there for their child.  I know plenty of women who admit they struggle with this instinctual tug on their gut.” This struggle is a real one; society does demand that women constantly prove their undying devotion to their children by putting them first and foremost. Meanwhile, there is little to no call that men’s traditional roles evolve. This is what needs to change. Mack goes on to declare that “men don’t have this kind of instinctual tug…Unless there’s beer involved, men don’t have many instincts at all.” This proclamation of laziness is rooted in gender essentialism.
All three of these thought processes regarding the motherhood/career balances that are mentioned above are flawed in two major ways. First, these models fail to recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes. Mack makes a nod to the additional challenges that single parents face, but does not do anything further. These models that pose the question, “Who will raise the children if women are at work?” does not even consider LGBT parents, people who are living with their extended families, and many many others. Nuclear, heterosexual couples are not the only ones raising children.
These models do, however, take the nuclear, heterosexual families and then leave men out of the parenting picture completely. It doesn’t even occur to Mack that he should have woken up in the middle of the night with his crying kids or taken on any other additional parental responsibilities. He looks at his wife’s role and thinks, “I’m so glad that wasn’t me,” and then that’s it (are you sensing a pattern here?). No one thinks that raising kids is easy, but putting all of the parenting on one person while both parents are working full-time isn’t a sustainable model. The fact is, women are part of the work force, and they are there to stay.
With that being said, women are not often represented in the top ranks of organizations. Currently, less than 5% of CEOs are women. I do believe that this number will continue to increase in coming years, and as that happens, there will undoubtedly be more discussions about the other 95%. Ironically, the men who are overwhelmingly in these top positions are rarely, if ever, challenged publicly on their parental responsibilities. Articles are seldom published about how they are juggling soccer practice and play-dates with their conference calls with the London office. Nor are they often written about whether or not they feel guilty for leaving before their children are up in the morning and coming home after they are tucked in for the night. Why? It is simply a non-issue. It has not been questioned publicly.
It needs to be. In fact, the entire approach to private and public spheres needs to be investigated, as they have a lot of influence on how we govern our daily lives. For example, the Federal Government currently only offers twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave; the rest is up to individual states. As explained by Cali Williams Yost in her article titled “3 Reasons Why Card-Carrying Capitalists Should Support Paid Family Leave” (which was, ironically, also published in Forbes):
“58% of mothers who gave birth and were offered leave by their employer received some form of maternity disability pay [in 2011], but only 14% of men on paternity leave received any replacement income. That means 42% of mothers and 86% of fathers with employer-supported leave received no income at all” in the private sector.”
Those numbers are nothing short of unacceptable, but change is in the air. Public discussions about parenthood and careers continue to occur, and push-back to these traditional standards of roles is on the rise. Thankfully, change is inevitable– whether people (like Gene Mack, for an example) want to admit it or not. That’s the thing about change- it’s not that change is coming. Change is already in the works. Paternity leave, flexible work schedules, and family support groups, among other things, are being increasingly added to corporate benefit packages. Schools are adding the far-and-wide contributions that women have made to history curriculum (Go SWSG!). So watch out world, sons of the next generation may be challenged to cut back on their beauty sleep.
What do you think about Mack’s piece? What do you think change looks like in the public and private spheres?