The XX Factor

Google Ups Its Maternity Leave and Hangs on to More Women

Silicon Valley has always sent mixed messages about how much it values women

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Google is famously data obsessed in its hiring process and has algorithms by which the company judges new recruits. But then sometimes those algorithms bump up against ugly humanity. When I talked to Google executive Marissa Mayer last year, she told me a story of interviewing a candidate and getting a queasy feeling about him, as if he did not take her seriously because she was a woman. The company asked a second woman to interview him and she got that same feeling. They did not hire the guy, and from then on a woman was required to sit in on every interview.

Recently Google’s analysis showed that the company was losing women after they had babies. The attrition rate for new mothers was apparently twice that of other employees. In response, according to a recent New York Times story, Google increased maternity leave from three months to five and made it fully paid. The attrition rate halved. Now, one could argue that a successful company should have known better than to have had such a pitiful maternity policy in the first place, and should have figured out why the new mothers were so unhappy without that spreadsheet. But hey, every corporate culture has its own way of figuring things out.

Silicon Valley has always sent mixed messages about how much it values women. On the one hand, the local culture worships the boy genius, the programmer, the product engineer, and this tends to replicate the boy’s club in a shiny new high-tech package. On the other hand, the culture approaches decisions in a clean methodical way. Mayer also told me that Sergey Brin and Larry Page were interested in hiring more women not because it was the PC thing to do but because they’d read several business management books arguing that diversity was better for the bottom line. Another example of its bloodless fairness: Google also ran an analysis showing that women recruits were more likely to turn down a job if they only talked to men during the hiring process. So Google made sure every woman candidate also talked to another woman.

Perhaps the news about Google is partly successful P.R. to make up for the loss of Mayer, who is rumored to have left for Yahoo because she was left out of the latest Google CEO’s inner circle. But that doesn’t really matter. The long-term importance of Google’s maternity leave changes, and of the Silicon Valley work culture in general, is that they provide an alternative model of the American workplace, where the usual barriers to women’s advancement can be coldly spreadsheeted away, where a morass-like sexism gets reduced to a few fixable items on a checklist.