Marissa Mayer and the 'mommy track': Is the work/life balance truly possible?

Is it really up to the Yahoo! CEO and expectant mother to show women how to rise to the top of the corporate world?

Henry Ray Abrams/AP/File
In this 2009 file photo, Marissa Mayer, who was named Yahoo Inc.'s CEO in July, accepts her award at Glamour magazine's 2009 Women of the Year awards at Carnegie Hall in New York. Mayer's drive to turn Yahoo! around while juggling a newborn is admirable, Rogers argues, but women shouldn't view Mayer's 90-hour workweek and minimal maternity leave as the only way to reach the top.

No, not a discussion of how to become an EconomistMom like me, but rather, the Economist magazine’s take on the “Mommy Track” and the “real reason why more women don’t rise to the top of companies.”  I agree with this reasoning (especially where I have added emphasis):

Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing or maths. Too few push hard for promotion. Some old-fashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles. Another McKinsey study in 2007 revealed that 54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men).

Many talented, highly educated women respond by moving into less demanding fields where the hours are more flexible, such as human resources or public relations. Some go part-time or drop out of the workforce entirely. Relatively few stay in the most hard-driving jobs, such as strategy, finance, sales and operations, that provide the best path to the top.

Consider this example. Schumpeter sat down with a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who says that, before starting a family, she was prepared to “give blood” to meet deadlines. After the anklebiters appeared, she took a job in corporate strategy at an engineering firm in Paris. She found it infuriating. Her male colleagues wasted time during the day—taking long lunches, gossiping over café au lait—but stayed late every evening. She packed her work into fewer hours, but because she did not put in enough “face time” the firm felt she lacked commitment. She soon quit. Companies that furrow their brows wondering how to stop talented women leaving should pay heed.

But I don’t like how the Economist insinuates it’s up to the new Yahoo CEO to prove that working moms really can rise to the top, this way:

Ms Mayer of Yahoo! is an inspiration to many, but a hard act to follow. She boasts of putting in 90-hour weeks at Google. She believes that “burn-out” is for wimps. She says that she will take two weeks’ maternity leave and work throughout it. If she can turn around the internet’s biggest basket case while dandling a newborn on her knee it will be the greatest triumph for working women since winning the right to wear trousers to the office (which did not happen until 1994 in California). To adapt Malia Obama’s warning to her father on his inauguration, the first pregnant boss of a big, well-known American company had better be good.

I think it’s all too easy to claim before the baby comes that you will be just as committed to your professional job, time-wise as well as attention-wise, once the baby arrives.  And in my own experience, going back to work full time soon after the baby is born is far easier than staying at work full time after the baby has turned into a teenager with needs that can’t really be properly met by anyone other than their actual parent.  Mothers have an obvious comparative (biological) advantage to fathers in caring for our newborn kids, but I think mothers keep the comparative advantage in terms of the “tug” we feel toward home over office (i.e., where we feel we make the biggest difference) throughout our kids’ childhoods.

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