Marissa Mayer, the recently named CEO of Yahoo, has caused an uproar with the announcement that she is pregnant with her first child as well. Many have responded to the news by questioning whether a Fortune 500 executive can even have a baby. Apparently, the two roles appear to be mutually exclusive, perhaps because only four percent of current Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and most of them are at least in their fifties. Others have questioned whether or not she can be a good mother and an effective CEO at the same time (although this question never seems to come up with fathers). Still others have implied that she will show signs of weakness if she takes any parental leave, to which she felt pressured to assure those naysayers that she will indeed work through her few weeks of maternity leave. This comment brought praise from some, who seem to believe women can push out babies between high power meetings, and it elicited criticism from others, who implied that her statement means she will neglect her baby. Hopefully Marissa Mayer has thick skin, and realizes that no matter what she does or doesn’t do, her life will be examined under a microscope, and her decisions will be criticized. This is blatant sexism. A male CEO who was becoming a father would never undergo this type of scrutiny.
And yet, there is so much more at work here than mere sexism. Marissa Mayer is not representative of most, or even many women. Mayer will receive an annual base salary of $1 million. She will also receive a yearly bonus of 200 percent of her base salary. Her annual equity award for 2012 will be $12 million, half in restricted stock that vests over three years, and half as a stock option that vests over 30 months. If she remains with the company for five years, she will be eligible for a massive performance and retention award of $30 million, which vests over five years. Prior to joining Yahoo, Mayer was a top executive at Google. She owns a 5 million dollar penthouse atop the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. She has options–a lot of options. Most women don’t.
When Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in July’s Atlantic, she was primarily addressing educated, financially secure white women. She was speaking to women with choices–women who could adapt their lives if they wanted to allow more time for family, or they wanted to devote more time to their careers, or both. She wasn’t thinking of the women for whom work outside of the home isn’t a choice–it’s a necessity–whether they have children or not. Perhaps we should all consider bell hooks’ take on motherhood, written in 1984: “Had black women voiced their views on motherhood, it would not have been named a serious obstacle to our freedom as women. Racism, availability of jobs, lack of skills or education and a number of other issues would have been at the top of the list–but not motherhood. Black women would not have said motherhood prevented us from entering the world of paid work because we have always worked” (bell hooks). And many women who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds must work in alienated labor, not in careers that they love because they have spent years in college preparing for them. No, the work that these women perform is work done out of necessity, work that can be dehumanizing, work that takes precious time away from their families. There is no choice there – there is no issue of having it all.
As women, we should support other women regardless of whether or not we can fully grasp their circumstances. We should not judge a woman’s decisions just because her life offers her different opportunities than we have. And society as a whole should stop judging women in areas where they would not think to judge men. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes may sound trite, but examining how our own exposure to privilege and oppression influences our thinking can be a very effective and worthwhile exercise to complete before we begin finger pointing.