Let’s think about some recent headlines. How about Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, who took a short maternity leave and earned lots of criticism? How about Sheryl Sandberg, who had the audacity to leave work at 5:30 to spend time with her family? Yesterday, the news was all about Adele, who missed the world premiere of the new James Bond movie to be with the baby she’d just had a few days ago.
When there are few women, especially women with children, in high-powered positions, every move that she makes is treated as if it represents the decisions of every other woman on the planet. This creates a double standard and it puts women in a box. It’s as if people expect every woman to repeat the performance of the woman before her just because she lacks a Y chromosome.
People, of course, blame the woman for her decisions. Marissa Mayer set an impossible standard for other women to follow. Brenda Barnes pulled feminism backward when she stepped down as chief executive of Pepsi to spend more time with her family.
The problem with this kind of blaming is that women didn’t create this kind of either/or, work/family debate that we live in. There are exceptions, but in general, corporate rules of behavior still follow a male-created ideal worker model from the fifties. If the rules don’t work for these mothers, and they’re doing what’s best for their families, how is it fair to blame them for refusing to play by the rules? What if the problem is not with these working mothers, but with the system and its rigid rules that don’t allow any kind of in-between?
If things had turned out differently, you can bet these high-powered mothers would still be blamed. What if Mayer’s child had been born with medical problems and she took more time away from work than she had originally planned? What if Barnes had decided to keep her crazy hours and then had a teenager who got in trouble with the law? Someone would find a way to point the finger.
Yet can you imagine the reverse happening? It’s rare to see much press time given to fathers and their parenting decisions. I don’t see many headlines where a newborn’s celebrity dad is given flak for going back to work the week after his baby is born. Nor do I see people calling a man weak (not in the news, anyway) if he leaves work early for a child’s ball game.
The reality is, children are unpredictable and hard to plan for. One child might be born healthy. Another might be in the NICU for weeks. One pregnancy might go smoothly. Another might require constant bedrest. And so on.
When we hold up a token woman and act as if all women either can or should behave this way, we aren’t fair to the women or to their families. Some say, “Well, I hired a woman for a project last year and then she got pregnant and left halfway through, so I won’t repeat that mistake.” We don’t talk that way about men. Can you imagine? “I won’t work with a man ever again. Bill refused to work overtime for family reasons. Tsk, men are just not dedicated to their work.” If we wouldn’t say the same about a man and put all men into the same box, we can’t do that for women, either.
We need to stop evaluating women based on their reproductive organs. This may seem to fly in the face of what I’m working for since my work is all about work and family, but exactly the opposite is true. We need to be flexible enough in the working world that women can make their own decisions without being put into some sort of real or imagined corner. The freedom for each woman to integrate work and family according to her own needs and decisions is what flexibility is all about.
One woman does not represent all women. Whether we agree with her decisions or not, we can’t hold her up as an example of what women will or won’t do or what’s wrong with our society. We have to stop blaming women for their children. Women are individuals, even when it comes to pregnancy, childbirth, and family decisions. We can’t expect all women, or even all mothers, to behave the same.