Saturday, November 21, 2015

On CEOs, privilege and the taking of parental leave

The news this week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be taking two months paternity leave with the arrival of his daughter is positive. Of course, at a practical level it does not change a thing for the vast majority of American workers whose access to any form of parental leave (forget paid!) is extremely limited if it exists at all. On the other hand, by coming out so publicly with his decision Zuckerberg does send a message to workplaces and parents, particularly fathers, who do have access to leave that they should absolutely utilize it.

Zuckerberg's public statement adds weight to the public policy argument for extending paid parental leave to all American workers. On his Facebook page he says: "studies show that when working parents take time off to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families". Significantly, his statement very firmly centers the needs of the child rather than the more commonly cited "economic" benefits that are used to justify what should be a universal entitlement.

At the same time, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has stated that she will be taking a mere two weeks off after the birth of her identical twin girls, just as she did when her first child arrived shortly after she took over Yahoo.

In her role as a CEO, Mayer faces a degree of scrutiny and criticism that is not experienced by male CEOs at the best of times, let alone when pregnancy, childbirth and parenting decisions enter the mix. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a male CEO feeling the need to publicly outline his plans for the care of a newborn, which is in part what makes Zuckerberg's very public statement so refreshing.

In a sense (and somewhat ironically, given her extreme privilege), Mayer's "choice" - while not constrained by personal finances , access to affordable (even quality) childcare or the 1000 logistical considerations that working parents face - is constrained in a way that is not unfamiliar to female workers. They must prove themselves against a norm that presumes there is a wife available on the home front who will look after all aspects of bearing, birthing, feeding and care of any offspring produced during the course of a working life. Nowhere is that outdated norm stronger than in the upper echelons of corporate America.

Mayer - and more to the point female workers - cannot win until paid parental leave is available to all workers and the expectation and reality is that it is utilized without fear of reprisal, of subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination on return to work by both mothers and fathers.

So again, yay Mark Zuckerberg for taking a stand for the utilization of paid parental leave but lets remember that he is protected by the privilege that goes with being male, a privilege that is not available to any female worker, even one who has reached the level of CEO.