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Does Skipping Maternity Leave Set A Bad Example?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today we had to bring up an issue that seems to have moms all over the country talking and writing and blowing up the blogosphere. We're talking about maternity leave.

Yahoo recently named Marissa Mayer as its new CEO. This makes Mayer the second female CEO in a high tech district called Silicon Valley, and if that wasn't news enough, it turns out that Marissa Mayer is also pregnant with her first child. In an interview with Fortune magazine after the announcement, Mayer said, quote, "I like to stay in the rhythm of things; my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work through it," unquote.

And, as you might say, well, that's her and her partner's business and her board of directors' business and her shareholders' business. Right? Wrong, apparently. When we asked our NPR listeners on Facebook what they thought, we got more than 2,000 comments. And you know what? The first 500 comments were in the first 10 minutes.

Here's one comment that captures why this issue seems to have grabbed our attention. Now, this is J.C. Taub(ph) of Westchester, New York. She posted this on her own Facebook page.

J.C. TAUB: I was disappointed in Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer, who has the opportunity to help women lacking the same support system she is fortunate to have. It sets a bad precedent for other new moms and the corporations they work for that will now expect her actions to be normal maternity leave behavior. I believe every working woman should make her own choices that are right for her and her family, but when you are a leader, you must think about how your actions affect others. I commend her for thinking she can do it all. However, as a high profile executive in a major company, I wish that she'd set an example on the importance of maternity leave. It would have done a world of good for working women.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, many listeners on our Facebook page agreed with J.C. Taub, but others said people should just stay out of her business. One listener wrote, quote, "Mayer's decision is her business, whether she can afford a nanny or not. I'm sure she's aware that she's starting her job during a precarious time in Yahoo's history. She probably feels the best way to manage her career and family is to have a quote-unquote working maternity leave."

Well, who better to talk about this than our panel of moms? I'm joined now by Sharon Lerner, author of the book "The War On Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation." She's a mom of two. She also wrote about this this weekend for the Washington Post opinion section.

Also with us, two of our regular moms, contributors. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker. She's the mom of five boys. She's also the cofounder of a parenting support group. And Leslie Morgan Steiner is a mom of three. She's also the editor of a book called "Mommy Wars" and she previously curated a blog on work/life balance which was hosted by the Washington Post.

Welcome, ladies. Thank you all for coming.


JOLENE IVEY: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Let me ask my two regular guests first. Jolene, this actually - this pushed your buttons too. Marissa Mayer's decision to take this abbreviated leave really pushed your buttons. Why?

IVEY: Well, first of all, it's just rather hilarious for someone who's never had a baby before to be making these declarations. She doesn't know what she's going to do. She just knows what she thinks she wants to do, and maybe she'll do it. Maybe she won't take any time off and that's great for her if that's what she wants. But she's got enough money to have the baby nurses, to have a baby nurse, and most of us don't have that luxury.

So I think it's really important for society to look at this issue and say, well, that's great for her in that special case of very wealthy women, but for the rest of us, I think that we need to take a good look at what's appropriate and what should be encouraged and supported as far as policy is concerned.

MARTIN: Well, so is your issue, again, what our other commentators said, is that it's the role model aspect of it? Is it the example that it set or you just...

IVEY: I don't have - I don't have a problem with her doing whatever she wants to do, but the rest of us need to look at it, and this gives us an opportunity to talk about it and say, well, what's right for everybody else? And I think what's right for most people and all babies is to have the opportunity to bond with their moms, to breastfeed, because that's really the best way for babies to be fed, whether it's by the breast or just - as long as they get the milk. I don't care, you know, what the vehicle is, whether it's a bottle or the breast, but that breast milk is really critically important for the health and well being of the baby, for their long term mental development.

And I don't think that it makes sense for us to skirt around it and act like, oh, everything's going to be fine if you go right back to work. It's not.

MARTIN: Leslie?

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: You know, what struck me about this is just how important maternity leave is as an issue to working moms, stay at home moms, employers, the government, politicians, the people running for president. And I think it's great that we're talking about it, and I think we should debate it and have lots of different opinions.

And the bottom line for me is that, you know, a group only needs role models when not enough members are succeeding, and I think that to call the CEO of Yahoo a role model for other women is kind of ridiculous. And what I would like to see is lots and lots and lots of different women finding their different solutions to maternity leave, to juggling work and family, so that we don't focus so much on just one person. But I think it's great to debate it all.

MARTIN: But what about the argument that she's setting a poor example just for the women in her company? And we also know that the high-tech industry has not been particularly welcoming to women in positions of leadership. In fact, the number of girls getting - girls and women getting computer science degrees has actually gone down in this company - in this country, rather - as a percentage of the total being awarded. And there have been a number of stories, particularly recently, about how this is one of the industries that does not seem to be embracing women as - to the degree that they could. And they're saying, you know, this is going to set a standard for other women just in that company.

STEINER: Well, I wonder, you know, would you - would we be here talking about this if the CEO of Yahoo had decided not to take paternity leave? I mean, how many CEOs are there in Silicon Valley companies who haven't taken a day of paternity leave? Why are we so focused on women, here? It's just - it just shows how sort of sexist and crazy and out-of-whack our society is, is that we narrow in on this one woman. And actually, the story is not over...

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Could it be that men don't get pregnant?

STEINER: You know what? I tell you, my husband took three days of paternity leave with my first child, and it broke my heart. It would've changed everything for me if he had taken the full month or six weeks that his company allowed. I think it's a really big issue and I don't - I think that the physicality of pregnancy is really - is a huge part of maternity leave. But I also think that we wouldn't have this big problem and this big focus on maternity leave being only an issue for moms if men paid more attention to it and understood how incredibly important it is.

MARTIN: Sharon, one thing I'm reminded that - remember when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, when his wife Cherie Blair, who is also a distinguished barrister, was pregnant with her fourth child and when she delivered her fourth child while he was in office, she put it out there publicly that she kind of expected him to take leave, which he did not do.

But you, Sharon, also wrote about this, as I mentioned, in the Post. And you're kind of with Jolene on this. You said that the truth is I'm just - well, actually, Leslie, too. You said: I'm just not that worried about Mayer, although everybody else seems to be. And you pointed out that she was Glamour Women of the Year, Google's 20th employee, will earn a pay package worth a reported $59 million over several years at Yahoo, is also married to a successful entrepreneur. And she says no matter what, she's in a certainly - a financial position to handle her business.

So what - if we shouldn't be talking about her, Sharon Lerner, what should we be talking about?

LERNER: We should - excuse me. We should be talking about everybody else, right? I mean, that's what makes me crazy about a story like this. We all start obsessing about this woman who, you know, is as close to having it all as anyone in this country. But really, when you look at everybody else, OK, the stats, I think, are really startling. When you look at the census numbers, one in 10 women go back within four weeks - working women - and more than half go back within three months.

And, you know, we're not applauding or debating them because, you know, this happens all the time. But the fact is they're going back because they don't have a choice. And this has been going on forever. So the big picture is that we are one of three countries in the world, rich and poor, that don't have paid maternity leave. So without it, we just have all these people who don't have choices to stay home and be with their kids. And you know...

MARTIN: You...

LERNER: Go ahead.

MARTIN: I'm just citing your piece. He said that the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that doesn't have a national policy on maternity leave. The other two are Liberia and Swaziland.


MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

LERNER: Well, oh, it's such a long story. I mean, when you look at Europe, most of those countries had paid leave by the '70s, the '80s. And so this has been a - we're not only really far out of the mainstream. We've been really far out of the mainstream for a really long time. There was a really big push to get paid leave passed when a whole bunch of other European countries were doing it back in 1919. I was researching, and wrote about that in my book. And it really blew me away that there was this great move to get paid leave passed in 1919. So we've been working on it for a really, really long time, and we just haven't gotten anywhere. And - go ahead.

MARTIN: Go ahead. No. Well, I was going to ask Leslie Morgan Steiner this. And you're also a person who has written extensively of the journalist - and, as I mentioned, you curated this work-life blog for the Washington Post - why it is. What's your sense of why it is that paid maternity leave is very much subject to the vagaries of different union contracts, employment contracts, you know, personal status of individuals involved? There is no national, certainly, paid leave policy.

It's become, I think, the norm in large companies to have a policy of unpaid leave. But even walking around this particular workplace, you will find many, many people will cobble together leave just based on their sick time, whatever accumulated sick time they had. In fact, you said you did that...


MARTIN: ...that you waited to have your third child until you had accumulated enough disability time to take some time off.

STEINER: That's exactly right. I think that the reason that we have such a hard time solving this problem in the country is twofold. One is that we, as a culture, we really worship motherhood and we have this romanticized view of that moms should stay home and take care of their kids. But on the other side, we are such a capitalist and entrepreneurial country, that we believe in individual achievement and accumulation of wealth. And the two things just don't go over very well together. They're contradictory. So it's really hard for us to resolve that.

And then also, I think that the business world and any kind of work world is really competitive. And if you have an advantage over somebody for any reason, I think you're going to take it.

You know, I had so many people disparage me for taking maternity leave, men coming into my office saying, you know, that they hoped I enjoyed my vacation while I was gone. And it's really demoralizing.

And what I saw in "Mommy Wars" is that women felt so let down - especially during maternity leave - by the men in their lives, by their husbands for not being more supportive, and by the men at work, the bosses, the heads of their companies. And I think that one reason why we're so focused on Marissa Mayer right now is that there's a lot of hope out there that women at the top are going to change things, and they're going to make it more acceptable to be a mom and to be a great employee.

And I have to say to myself, you know, my last maternity leave, I was the same age as she is. And I told everybody I wasn't going to take maternity leave, and then I did, because I changed my mind the second my daughter was born. And I've got to say, 10 years later, it made no difference to my employer, the Washington Post, and it made no difference to my career that I took maternity instead of working through it as I promised I was going to. So I think there's hope there's hope there, too, that it really just doesn't matter as much as we think it does.

MARTIN: We're talking about maternity leave. That's a conversation that's been in the news after Yahoo's incoming CEO Marissa Mayer said she would return to work after just a few weeks, and would probably work through her maternity leave. We're talking about this with our regular contributors Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Also with us, Sharon Lerner, author of "The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation." She also wrote about this for the Washington Post Opinion Page this week.

Jolene, you're also a state lawmaker in addition to being a mom of five. I'm just interested in - and you sought public office after your kids were all launched, you know, born-launched, you know, out in the world. I mean, you've still got some kids at home. But I did want to ask about why, as a policymaker, you feel that this issue doesn't advance more, given how many women of young children are in the paid labor force now.

IVEY: The basic problem is that men are still controlling too much of the world. That's the problem. I mean that seriously, because in our culture, we seem to support what directly affects men, OK. If somebody dies in our culture, that nobody minds that you take some time off to deal with the funeral preparations and grieving, all the things you need to do in the weeks around someone's death. That seems to be OK, because, you know what? Men have to deal with that, too.

When somebody gets married, you don't seem to mind that they take time off for their honeymoon, because these things affect men. But the things that more directly strongly affect women and babies, well, that's just not important. That's the problem, and that's what we need to do to change. And it's up to us who are in a position to do anything to affect those changes who need to take it on and do it.

MARTIN: Which is, I think, part of your issue with Marissa Mayer. You feel that she does - the role model aspect has a cultural pull. Can I just disagree with you about one thing?

IVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: I think I might disagree that it's being a mother or parent, per se. I think anything care-giving and domestically related is not given the same level of respect. Because I'll give you an example: When my husband and I were married, my husband was going to start a trial soon after our honeymoon. And he asked the judge when they were setting the trial dates, and he made this clear that he were getting married and he asked for a certain amount of time. And do you know the judge, who was a woman, said you can have 10 days, not two weeks. So she - so and, you know, we could speculate about her motivation there...

IVEY: But that's still the culture.

MARTIN: But again, that is the culture. I mean, that is the culture.

IVEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And it's that the site of a home is not deemed to be important - so anything related to the home not deemed to be important. And I would argue that the people who have to take care of elderly parents, which many men have to do if they are perhaps the only child, for example, or there are no sisters involved...

IVEY: It's usually the women who do that. I mean...

MARTIN: No, but...

IVEY: ...I know there are times that men do it, but usually women do it.

MARTIN: Well, OK, Sharon Lerner, you spoke with a lot of women about maternity leave for your book "The War on Moms."


MARTIN: What do you think the way forward is? I'm going to give you the last word here.

LERNER: Well, I think right now the way forward we can already see is in the states. You know, New Jersey and California did pass paid leave. Is not as long as you want, it's not as much money, but they did it, and there are other states that are trying to do it now. And I think before we get a federal law, that's the way it's going to go.

I just wanted to add one thing - excuse me. When you're talking about why it hasn't happened yet, I also think a big part of this is, you know, this - back to Marissa Mayer, is that it's a very different picture for wealthy women than it is for poor women. And when you look at who has paid leave in this country, you know, since we don't have a national law, two-thirds of women who have BAs or more get paid leave, any paid leave, and only 18 percent of women who have less than a high school degree.

So you can see that, like, for some people, it's much less of an issue. It's just very different. And I think that has to do with, you know, if it's solved for you, you're not going to be that fired up about solving it for everyone else.

MARTIN: Or is it also that women who have paid leave are just not connected to the women who don't? It's that it's not just that it's solved for them, but that there's really no real conversation or dialogue or connection with the women who don't. I don't know. You know what? I lied. I'm going to give Leslie the last word on this.


STEINER: OK. I think the thing that got me the most about this issue was the accusation that women lack ambition, and that another Silicon Valley icon, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO, said that. And I just want to put in a plug for wealthy women, successful women and the women at the very bottom of the educational and economic rungs. We all have incredible ambition. We want to do it all. And I think it's so ambitious, that people can't recognize it. And I think that every woman who does it all deserves to be applauded.


MARTIN: All right. Applaud.


MARTIN: Here it is: applause.


MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the mom of three and the author of the most recently of "Crazy Love." She was here in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Jolene Ivey, Maryland state lawmaker, a mom of five and co-founder of a parenting support group. With us from KUOW in Seattle, our member station, Sharon Lerner, author of the book "The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation."

Thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

STEINER: Thank you.

LERNER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.