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What Marissa Mayer’s Maternity Leave Means for Working Mothers

By Carolyn Lawrence

“I was pregnant with my first child when we started negotiating our deal to sell High Road to Omnicom, and wound up giving birth right in the middle of the due diligence,” said Mia Pearson, telling the story of the acquisition of her first public relations firm at her Women of Influence Evening Series event last week.

As Mia continued to speak on working throughout a pregnancy, my thoughts went to a bigger picture: the additional scrutiny women in leadership face when making personal decisions, especially those concerning motherhood.

If you don’t think that’s true, just look at the media storm sparked by the recent maternity leave announcement from Yahoo CEO, Marisa Mayer. In her own words, she will be “taking limited time away and working throughout.” A chorus of voices, both male and female, have responded with their opinions on this personal decision, and what it means for working mothers—and women in the workforce in general.

From the women, I feel this scrutiny stems from two things: curiosity and back-seat parenting.

With so few women as Fortune 500 CEOs (a scant 5%), there just aren’t enough female role models to go around. We want to know how this select group is succeeding, including the delicate issue of starting and raising a family. We dissect the rare bird of the senior executive mother because we want to understand her.

As for unsolicited motherly advice: it’s common enough to be a comedic trope. The best advice I ever received as a mother was that “only you are the best mother to your children.” Our natural instincts are the right ones for our offspring, and that these may be or seem dramatically different than another mother’s approach doesn’t make them wrong, or worthy of judgement.

Marissa Mayer made her choice. She believes it is the best choice for herself, her family, and the company she leads. While some have attacked her for setting a bad example, I think instead she is sending a powerful message: you should have the choice to make the best decisions for yourself.

While there is still far to go, companies are beginning to step up to enable women to make those choices. For example, Yahoo offers an extended maternity leave, thanks to Marissa. And there are other innovative, gender-inclusive companies coming out with new perks designed to ease the burden on working mothers—from the shipping of breast milk to paid travel for nannies. Coming from a working mother who has pumped in an airplane bathroom and ended my own mat leave early because of a project deadline, I say thank you.

Related: Why it Matters that Pinterest released their diversity numbers 

Maybe it was, as Fortune says, in Mayer’s “delivery” of the message, but it looks thoughtful to me. She remains vague about the time off but wholeheartedly committed to her work. She’s likely trying to reassure her board, employees, and shareholders.

It has worked for Mayer to start a family from the top, not on her way up. The message I would take if starting out my career now is the importance of communicating with my workplace and partner to ensure that values are aligned, and that choice is an option—being able to choose and do what is best for you.


Interested in the topic of parenting while being a woman of influence?

We’ve had many of our experts weigh in:

Thirty-Seven and Counting: the harsh reality of women’s fertility decline 

A Day in the Life with Carolyn Lawrence

The Desk of a New “Working Mama” of Influence