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Not even the most successful women can escape analysis of the decisions they make about maternity leave.

Women—even CEOs—still can’t win when it comes to maternity leave

Georgene Huang
By Georgene Huang

CEO and Co-founder, Fairygodboss

I’ve always been a sucker for articles and talk show segments that offer a glimpse at the personal lives of women leaders. I’m fascinated when women CEOs and politicians share interview tidbits about how they manage their marriages, raise their children, and deal with the challenges of work-life balance. How do they find time to exercise? Do they make it home in time for dinner? How many of them have stay-at-home spouses who are primarily caregivers?

My interest in these women’s life choices makes me feel almost guilty because I realize I’m part of the societal and cultural phenomenon of holding women—particularly high-achieving women—to an elevated standard when they are in positions of power.

And also because I’m personally living with the discomfort of being that woman. Eight months pregnant, I’m CEO of a fast-growing startup. There are a number of people watching my behavior and choices: my team, of course, whom I’m conscious I lead by example; our board; and institutional venture capitalists—a tough and pretty uncompromising (and very male-dominated) audience—from whom we’re preparing to fundraise in the new year.

All of them want to know how I’ll handle my maternity leave.

Adding to the pressure is that my company, Fairygodboss, happens to be a leading career community focused exclusively on the female experience at work. Our mission is to help improve the workplace for women by creating transparency about how employers’ policies, culture, and benefits support (or don’t) women from entry-level positions up through the senior management ranks. Much of what we support is what women in our community say is important to them: equal pay, a fair shot at being promoted, flexible work, paid leave and the respect of being treated like an adult when it comes to how and when they accomplish their results at work.

I realize I’m not a household name like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who has publicly talked about how balancing her career with family “hurt like hell.” I am not as opinionated as Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose powerful essay challenged women who think they can “have it all,” nor am I in as tough of a position as Marissa Meyer, who helmed a global behemoth as a pregnant CEO under a great deal of scrutiny. But I still feel torn about my choices and the inevitable negative judgment I know my choices will create.

In Meyer’s case, I vividly recall the way she was lambasted for choosing to take only two weeks off from her work at Yahoo when she had her twin babies. She was pilloried for choosing to take such a short maternity leave instead of leading by example. Understandably, the 114 million people in America with no access to paid leave to care for a new child or sick family member likely didn’t feel any sympathy for her plight.

Who was right? At the time, I could relate to the criticisms on both sides, but I also felt that they were deeply unfair. As Yahoo’s CEO, Meyer had choices that can only, by definition, be described as privileged. However, her fellow women couldn’t cut her a break and let her choose to live her personal and professional choices without this excessive scrutiny. That, too, felt unfair to me.

Frankly, it seemed like Meyer received all of this presumably unwanted attention on her personal life because she was a woman. It’s inconceivable that there would have been the same kind of public interest, debate, or criticism if the CEO of Yahoo were becoming a second-time father and deciding to take two weeks of paternity leave. If Meyer had taken two months of leave—if she were a man—she would have been the heralded subject of morning talk shows and gushing newspaper headlines … which is exactly what happened when Mark Zuckerberg announced his decision to take two months of paternity leave after the birth of his daughter.

The more common experience for anyone who has the fortune to work within corporate America’s walls—and whose employer offers extended (read: more than just a few months) of paid parental leave—is having to decide whether they should take advantage of their full paid leave allotment. As employers are increasingly offering generous maternity and parental leave policies, women (and men) are asking themselves whether they’ll be judged as less committed employees if they take their full leave. Will they be viewed as “disappearing for four months”? What projects and plum assignments will they miss? Anxiety about being “mommy tracked” is real, as is the evidence that the pay gap widens due to motherhood, and that deciding to have a family may harm their career and earnings potential.

It seems, then, that women really just can’t win when it comes to how much maternity leave to take. Despite knowing better than most about the bias, expectations and unfair standards I’m being measured by, I nevertheless cannot honestly say “I don’t care” how others within my company and professional and personal communities view my choices. I find myself cringing when asked the seemingly straightforward question, “Are you going to take your full leave?” And I also don’t want to really answer other related queries, such as “will you be working from home?” and “how much will you really disconnect?”

I have prepared—which is not only in line with my personality, but also my business responsibility—by crafting answers in a way that I imagine politicians are coached by media trainers to do, i.e. by answering the questions I want to answer rather than the questions that are asked. I know better than most that there’s no upside in caring this much about how my choices will be perceived.

But I have a hard time imagining that anyone (and especially, other women CEOs) living in my shoes would do any differently. I’m a third-time mother and first-time founder. I know the kind of  dedication and work startups require. I know what two (different) physical childbirth recoveries feel like and what sleep deprivation feels like. I also know what it’s like to have a company that feels like a fourth child, and that all of my other children will need me at different times for different things. I know it will take ruthless prioritization and judgements about what is really important and what can be delegated to whom. All of that seems too complex to fit into a simple answer to the simple question “how much maternity leave will you take?” or even “will you really take maternity leave?”

Those are questions with which male founders and startup CEOs never have to contend. Certainly, they may have encountered emotional conflicts when making their own choices, and this isn’t to discount that. But the truth is that their choices will never be scrutinized as heavily by others, and few people will really question whether it matters if they are good fathers as well as good business leaders. Until our social norms evolve to the point where we expect male CEOs to also be great fathers and parents the same way we expect women to excel at everything, that’s yet another cross that women leaders, like me, will have to bear.

Georgene Huang is co-founder and CEO of Fairgodboss.