There has been a lot of talk about Marissa Mayer’s ascension to the top spot at Yahoo!—and her being pregnant while doing it. Most women, feminist or not, cheered the news as yet another fracture in the corporate glass ceiling—and one that puts a powerful face on a working mother to boot!
But her face looks a lot different than that of most career moms. Mayer talked about her maternity leave as if it were a mild inconvenience: it would be brief and she would work throughout it. But the only way she will be able to do that is with the kind of help and resources many working moms don’t have. While I understand Mayer’s commitment to her new job, I do worry that such declarations (issued as if to assume anything less would be unconscionable) hurt working moms everywhere and further prevent the U.S. from adopting a realistic family leave policy.
When I was pregnant, I worked for a company that offered generous maternity leave and corporate perks such as breastfeeding support groups and an on-call nurse to answer questions. I still had to sanction every last vacation and sick day to stay home with my infant for 12 weeks. I could have stayed longer, but without pay and without any promise of my job being there for me when I came back. That is federal policy. And that is why “having it all” doesn’t exist. Women can’t help but feel pressured to prioritize their work over all else lest they be marked as expendable employees. We’ve got to do away with that fear in order to collectively demand better support from the working world.
I came across some great advice on how to take those steps from Xerox executive Christa Carone. Below are some snippets from her article, which you can read in its entirety at Forbes.com.
- Be a superstar employee. Be a standout professional as soon as you start a career or a job. Do a great job. Know what it takes to rise quickly in your organization, and do that. While you have the time and the energy, be the best employee you can be—and Sandberg makes this point—even when you are planning to have a baby. Then when you’re a working parent, you will have earned some flexibility. Companies, by the way, are most likely to allow that flexibility to retain top talent. Of course, your job as a veteran superstar is to show you’re good at learning new skills—like juggling.
- Be true to yourself. Know who you are and what you want in life. If you are going to manage a job and nurture a family, stay true to what’s most important to you. There will be days when reading a story at your kid’s school will mean you need to take time out of the office. Don’t be apologetic about that. You need to find a workplace that allows employees to be honest about their lives. If someone is going to give you a hard time, deny you a promotion, or penalize you in any way because you’re living a full life, find a new place to excel. I’m happy to report that more enlightened companies, like Xerox, where I work, are out there.
- Be honest: You’re not superhuman. Top-flying women like Yahoo’s Mayer make the mere mortals among us feel we should be superheroes. But as I suspect Mayer will learn, no one has everything figured out. There are plenty of people who’ve managed a career and nurtured a family. It sometimes means missing a school field trip or a business dinner. Have the humility to approach other working parents and know you can learn and benefit from their experience. One of my biggest supporters earlier on in my career was Xerox’s then chief financial officer Larry Zimmerman. Xerox has a culture that is receptive to work-life needs, but Larry really went to bat for me when I had a toddler, was expecting my second child, and was commuting between Norwalk, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. He never questioned my ability to do it all, but he was patient and understanding when I felt tapped out. He was an advocate. (Thanks, Larry!) I didn’t know it at first, but Larry’s daughter, who was about my age, was starting a family around the same time. I bet he hoped someone was looking out for his daughter in the same way.Find that unexpected sponsor in your company. It may be the last person you’d ever think of, but he or she may have a perspective you never considered. Even though Xerox is known for its female leadership—Ursula Burns, a mom, is our second female CEO—it was the 60-year-old guy in the CFO’s office who offered me insights I really needed. I just had to be humble enough to ask for them.
- Understand that your priorities and interests will change. I like to talk about “adaptable ambition.” Your ambition will ebb and flow over your lifetime. Your world view will shift as your life changes. It’s crazy to think that having children won’t rock your world. Just as having a sick parent or a sick friend forces you to re-examine your life and your priorities, having a child does that, too. It’s okay. You can set the world on fire at work without fanning the flames 24/7.
- Realize that flexibility is a two-way street. If you’re lucky enough to find an enlightened company that can be flexible about where and when employees work, know that you’ll have to be flexible too. There will be trips, conferences, and work events you can’t miss, no matter what. And work sometimes eats into family time in the evenings and on weekends. It’s a mistake to expect flexibility without giving some back. I must admit that I still fume that a colleague once stepped out of a weekend-long, all-hands-on-deck crisis meeting because he wanted to coach a little-league game. It wasn’t a playoff game. It wasn’t a championship. It was a regular game. A regular little-league game vs. a company crisis? Sometimes work does need to win. Be smart about making the right judgment calls.
- Before you join a company, understand its culture. If you want flexibility about work but are reluctant to ask about it during the interview process, look and listen for clues that the company is family-friendly. Do managers have pictures of their kids on their desks? Is there talk of regular mandatory meetings that start at 7 a.m. or 6 p.m.? Will you be on the road three days a week? If they ask you what you like to do in your free time, do they offer to share how they spend theirs?Flexibility is baked into Xerox’s corporate culture—so baked, in fact, that we don’t track the number of people who job-share or have flexible work arrangements. It’s why I’ve been successful here, and why we are able to retain a number of working parents in our ranks.
- Face it: Some jobs aren’t right for you. If having a balanced life is important to you, and you’re being true to yourself, there are some jobs you shouldn’t take and some companies you won’t join.I’ve had the opportunity to consider positions at other companies with attractive compensation packages, but I have to go back to my “be true to yourself” statement. I’ve spent 16 years of my life at Xerox, a very enlightened company. The flexibility I have here is a big reason I’ve stayed—and remained happy.