Hanna, I am torn about the news that new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is pregnant. My first reaction was similar to yours: How thrilling that such a prominent company hired a pregnant woman to lead them. What an inspiring message, that family doesn’t have to be a hindrance to your career. But then I read what Mayer told Fortune about her intentions for the post-partum period: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
A few things about that. For Mayer’s sake, I hope that she can work the way she wants to after the birth of her child, that she is physically well enough to be present in the way she hopes to be present. But what if the birth is difficult? What if she has health complications? Or what if, God forbid, her child does? Will the ailing Yahoo be sympathetic? I truly hope they are—and they well might be, as all of this is happening so publicly—because that would be quite exceptional corporate behavior. Most pregnant women and women who have recently given birth don’t get that kind of leeway from their employers. And if Mayer’s plan does go the way she wants it to, I fear that employers will be even less accommodating to women who need (or want) more than a few weeks, and can’t—or don’t want to—work immediately after giving birth. They’ll point to Mayer and say, she did it, so why can’t you?
In fact, just this morning I read about a pregnant truck driver named Amber Reeves, who was fired because her doctor said she couldn’t lift more than 20 pounds, and her job required her to lift up to 75 pounds. According to RH Reality Check, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act doesn’t protect women like Reeves, who are hindered by their pregnancy but can still continue to work. Many more women are like Reeves than are like Mayer. So, let’s hope that the new Yahoo CEO uses her very prominent role to help women like Reeves, rather than totally ignoring the fact that there are some structural barriers in place that prevent women less privileged than she is to succeed.