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Gosh, Melissa Mayer’s ears must be burning.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few days, you’ll know that Melissa Mayer is pregnant with twins and has announced she’ll be taking 2 weeks  (only) of maternity leave before returning to her role as CEO at Yahoo. And unless the rock you’ve been living under has been big enough to shield you from all aspects of the media, you’ll also know that rigorous debate regarding her decision has ensued.

It seems that everyone has an opinion.

I too have mine.

Since the news broke, I’ve read a lot of articles and comments regarding Ms. Mayer’s decision. Many of them have been shared, written and posted right here on LinkedIn. Each one of them has elicited a variety of responses – one post, full of swear words targeted at Ms. Mayer, gave a clear indication of just how passionate some feel towards this issue. And on the other end of the spectrum, there have been those who have simply stated something like, “Why are we even talking about this? I didn’t know maternity leave was even an issue for women in the workplace?”  

Suffice to say, Ms. Mayer’s announcement has evoked nothing less than vehement, and at times, obtuse responses from many. 

But even after reading so many of the articles and opinions, I feel that there are fundamental elements of Ms. Mayer’s decision that have been neglected. In fact, I can tell you 5 things that don’t seem to have been clearly articulated in the commentary I’ve read. Whilst my thoughts may be intertwined, each point stresses a different aspect of what I believe is relevant to this discussion.

Let’s chat about them shall we?

1. Every case is unique. For me, this stands out like a sore thumb. Maternity leave is a complex issue, and yet many commentators have chosen to whitewash the issue by making blanket statements about what is right and what is wrong, when the simple fact remains – what works for one woman may not work for another.

My experience as a maternity coach has shown that while there are women who take their full entitlements, there are also women who return to work very soon after their babies are born. Does that make one women better than the other? No. Does that make one women a bettermother than the other? Definitely not! Each woman’s circumstance is different and needs to be treated as such.

…which leads me onto the second point.

2. It should be a woman’s right to choose how she wishes to manage her maternity leave. If Ms. Mayer wants to return to work 2 weeks after giving birth then she should be supported! Alternatively, if she wants to take her full maternity leave entitlements, then so be it! If Yahoo, or anyone else for that matter, frowns upon either decision, then shame on them. It’s a woman’s right to negotiate maternity leave with her employer and subsequently choose what is best for her, her family and her situation.

Ms. Mayer’s maternity leave announcement should have sparked conversation about how fantastic it is that women have the right to negotiate maternity leave options that best for them. But instead, it seems that the opposite has occurred and debate regarding whether or not she is setting a bad example to other mothers is abhorrent to me.

Here’s what my experience has taught me – working mothers alreadyhave self-imposed and societal guilt about what it means to achieve a positive work/life balance. But now we’re heaping more onto them?! Not okay. We should be supporting women, not tearing them down. And yet, here we are in 2015, judging and shaming a woman for the choice she’s made. Ugh. I can almost hear ghosts from the Suffrage Movement sighing. Heavily.

…a perfect segue into my next point.

3. Melissa Mayer does not owe anything to anyone except to her family and (secondly, her) employer. This is perhaps the point that I feel most strongly about and it’s in response to the thousands of women (face palm!!!), either representing politically motivated lobbyist groups or themselves, who have espoused that womenhood is somehow in jeopardy now that Ms. Mayer has made her announcement. WHAT???

This is what I have to say to you – Melissa Mayer does not owe you anything! She is not your role model, nor does she purport to be. She isnot trying to set an example, she is not trying to make you feel bad. If she is, then that’s on you! I believe ‘Hector Projector’ is the psychoanalytical term used to describe your visceral feelings.

Thankfully, Ms. Mayer seems strong enough to withstand the scrutiny of her decision. Now that’s what I call role modelling leadership behaviour!

Women! It’s our duty to respect other women’s choices. To say that Ms. Mayer is a ‘bad role model’ buys into the same type of discriminatory judgements that our gender has been fighting for since the turn of the century!

4. Discussion about gender equality sort of misses the point. This point is based on those who, in an effort to come to Ms. Mayer’s defence, have asked, “Would we be having this conversation if she was a man”? Well, no, we probably wouldn’t. But if Yahoo’s CEO was a man and announced he was taking up to a year off for paternity leave, I think we’d have a different story.

My ‘Generation X’ understanding of women’s rights and gender equality is based on striving for availability of opportunity as well as, availability ofchoice. So for me, Ms. Mayer’s announcement is not as much about encouraging a ‘gender neutral’ stance, as it is about looking a little further, to consider the ramifications for both women and men, especially as our definitions of concepts like ‘family’, ‘parenting’ and ‘primary care giver’ continue to evolve.

5. This issue is not just about YOUNG women. It’s about ALL women (and men for that matter too)! So many posts and articles have been written saying that Ms. Mayer’s announcement has put undue pressure on young women to prematurely (no pun intended) return to work after maternity leave due to workplace pressure. Huh?!

To these commentators, may I simply say this – after you re-read point #3, please also be reminded that the complexities of maternity leave transition effect women and men of all ages and levels of experience.

Secondly, I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t at the meeting Ms. Mayer had with the Yahoo board members, announcing her maternity leave decision. Nor am I privy to her decision-making process, her family situation, or her motivational drivers.  I would hazard a guess by saying that the majority of people reading this don’t have that insight either. So until we do, I suggest we don’t assume anything. After all, you know what they say about people who assume…

Whilst it’s great to have an opinion, it’s important to keep moving forward with positivity, respect and support for each other’s choices. Coming from a place of understanding and respect rather than judgement, ignorance and vitriol will go a long way to supporting women during their maternity leave transitions.

To this end, Ms. Mayer, I wish you the best!


Sona Thacore is the Owner and Principal Consultant of Milana Maternity Coaching and Milana Business Coaching. She specialises in coaching and mentoring emerging leaders.

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