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Why Marissa Mayer’s Choice Scares Me

Like Elissa Strauss, I read the story about Marissa Mayer’s “soft” maternity leave with fascination and concern. I agree with Elissa that for many women, the ability to keep one hand in the work pot after the arrival of a child might be intellectually beneficial, good for morale and helpful for career prospects. I wish we as a society had more options available for part-time work for new parents and anyone caring for an ailing relative.

I also agree that this a choice that’s quite personal and different for every woman. But at the same time, I’m troubled by the policy implications that might come from Mayer’s choice. In these types of articles about the work-life decisions of the über-wealthy and über-busy, outlets like the Times do nowadays take the obligatory moment to acknowledge that they’re coming from a place of privilege. As the article states:

“Many women have no choice but to quickly return to work because they need the paycheck or can’t risk losing their job. And waitresses, nannies and teachers, for instance, can’t send e-mails from their iPhones and call it “working.”

To me, it almost seemed like the sentence was a rebuke to Times columnist David Brooks, who raised the ire of many when he wrote this a sentence a few weeks ago describing the work habits of the American elite, “They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.” (HuffPo’s Jason Linkins snapped back: “If you are chilling outside your kid’s piano lesson and taking a conference call, you aren’t “working long hours.” You aren’t even working.”)

Brooks would probably salivate with delight over the stubborn drive to the top displayed by Mayer. He would perhaps not think twice about the hotel workers at Hyatt who as of this morning are urging a boycott of the chain due to dangerous work conditions. These are women who are being physically broken down by the tiring work they do every day, and who will never have the luxury of being able to do that work from the nursery or the playroom as someone like Mayer can. These are the kind of people who need paid family leave, paid sick leave, and more: they need it on the books, and they need it desperately. Here’s a video of Hyatt workers urging the boycott and describing the physical pain of their work life.

The point is, company and national policy decisions should be made based on the lives of people at the bottom of the work hierarchy, not those at the very tip-top. If people like Marissa Mayer and other high-powered CEO’s make the willing choice to work through their maternity leave, then cheers to them. But if their personal paths impact policy for the women down the income scale, then that frightens me quite a bit, because those women have very little left to give. As Bryce Covert notes at The Nation:

… her behavior will inevitably become the model for what’s considered the norm for all the women working under her. If the boss is only out a few weeks and doesn’t even take real time off of work, why should a lower-down pregnant employee expect that she could take the full twelve (unpaid) weeks allotted to her by the FMLA and not raise a few eyebrows?

Working through maternity leave is an interesting and gutsy move. Not having mandatory paid maternity leave be the norm, as Elissa noted, is a complete and total tragedy.

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