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What Marissa Mayer's pregnancy meant to women

October 08, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc., had a baby last week.
Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc., had a baby last week. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg…)

Will Marissa Mayer's high-profile pregnancy help end pregnancy discrimination?

The Yahoo CEO, who gave birth last week, is the topic of a New York Magazine article by Lisa Miller, which, among other things, delves into Mayer’s idea of work-life balance. From the article:

For her, parenthood is not a special category of extracurricular activity. Mayer’s approach to questions of work-life balance is to give everyone -- male, female, married, single, with children or without -- the freedom to leave work for the things that matter most, whether it’s dinner with friends or marathon training or being on time for the soccer game. “I think that burnout happens because of resentment,” she has said. “That notion that, Wow, I worked 100 hours last week, and I couldn’t even have this thing that I really wanted.

For New York Mag’s author, Mayer “appears to exist as a living, breathing rebuttal to the Atlantic's recent 'Why Women Still Can’t Have It All' cover story.”

But let’s be honest. Marissa Mayer is an exception to a slow-changing rule.

In a New York Times Op-Ed urging the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, author Alissa Quart writes that women still fear pregnancy discrimination.  “For the rich and powerful, pregnancy might not be an obstacle -- it might even help one’s career. But for the rest of us, it remains a hindrance.”

Quart describes one friend who hid her baby bump from her boss until the second trimester and she points to another who worries that getting pregnant would stand in the way of a promotion. 

“These fears are not unreasonable. Claims of discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from pregnant women are increasing, having risen 23% from 2005 to 2011,” she writes. In one instance, a Houston restaurant is accused of allegedly telling pregnant employees it was “‘irresponsible’ to keep working after they had become pregnant.”

I personally don’t have girlfriends hiding their pregnancies from their employers -- but that’s because so many of them are choosing not to have kids at all. For me, it’s the articles I come across that are a constant reminder, advice pieces advising career-minded women to hide their pregnancies for as long as possible.  

Last year, in response to an Op-Ed in our Opinion pages about how far women had -- and had not -- come since winning the right to vote, one reader left a back-handed comment that shocks me still.  An excerpt:

Women should be held accountable for their choices, but we should also celebrate that we HAVE so many choices. Personally...I choose not to have kids and to get ahead in my career. But I have total respect for a woman that chooses the opposite, or some combination of the two. And that might mean that she makes less money, but enjoys time with her family. Good for her.

Cries of "gender discrimination" are just ways to explain away one's own personal shortcomings.

Give me a break. Having a successful career and a child is not an either/or choice for a man, nor should it be for a woman. And if a woman has to ask whether she can have it all, so too should a man.

So why is Marissa Mayer more special the rest of us? Quart’s take: “Simply put, a server is easily replaceable in the eyes of management. In contrast, in the case of Yahoo, the company was struggling to find a savior, and there were few options. Ms. Mayer, pregnant or not, was deemed their best option.”

Good on her. We should celebrate Mayer as an example of progress. But we’d be wise to remember that Mayer -- even though she inspires us – doesn’t represent all women, and that we still have much more to do in the way of creating an equal playing field.

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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