(WOMENSENEWS)--Earlier this month, Anne-Marie Slaughter's divisive essay on upper-class women having it all opened up the floodgates of opinions on work-life balance.
This week, another powerful woman is dominating headlines, this time for landing the position of CEO in a field led by men. But it was her next revelation that has gotten the most attention.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, is seven months pregnant.
Is this news on par with Steve Jobs' cancer announcement? Not even close. Does being pregnant affect her ability to lead? Absolutely not.
Yet Mayer's news brings back a conversation that was begun long before Slaughter's article: Women who hope to have both thriving families and competitive careers face particular challenges to work-life balance.
Beginning with maternity leave.
"At least 178 other countries have national law guarantees of paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 guarantee paid leave for new fathers," Janet Walsh wrote in the Human Rights Watch report "Failing Its Families."
Sure, there's always family and medical leave, but that's unpaid--not an option for those who cannot afford the lapsed paychecks. As David Crary points out in the Huffington Post, "By excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, [the Family and Medical Leave Act] covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave."
And then there's the fear that an employee might lose her job if she requests too much time off.
"This is an economic struggle highlighting yet again the social costs arising from decades of stagnating or declining wages and growing income inequality," E.J. Dionne Jr. commented in The Washington Post.
Mayer's news brings the problem of parental leave into focus; it's the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate a broken system that has allowed us to lag far behind other countries.
Setting a Precedent
Mayer plans to take only a few weeks off and will even work during that break. Much has been made of the dearth of women in tech recently, and Mayer likely feels pressure to represent smart, ambitious women everywhere by heading straight back to work after giving birth.
But there's no denying that as the first pregnant Fortune 500 CEO, Mayer is setting the precedent for other expectant mothers.
"This may be a turning point for mothers in the corporate world," Kaitlin Rattigan, president of the Philadelphia-based advocacy organization Women's Campaign International, told Women's eNews.
"Pregnancy is not a preexisting condition, nor should it be used to discourage women from leadership positions," she adds. "There are enough societal and cultural constructs that already fuel that goal."
I applaud Mayer's decision to join the sparse ranks of female CEOs as the head of a faltering but still prominent tech company, and I wish her the best as she balances the demands of the new job with those of motherhood.
But in dismissing the idea of taking enough time to recover after childbirth, Mayer may be losing out on the opportunity to talk about the importance of offering paid leave to parents--and to make a difference in the lives of millions of parents. Not everyone is able to bounce right back to work after a family member needs care, nor should they be expected to.
When a worker is ill or injured, companies provide income; retirement plans and social security fill the gap when employees can no longer work. "Why isn't there a coordinated, uniform workplace and public policy that offers time off and at least partial income replacement when people, inevitably, have babies or an aging parent needs care?" Cali Williams Yost, founder of Work+Life Fit, recently wondered on Forbes.com.
"Losing an employee is very expensive," she continues. "Wouldn't it be better to lose someone temporarily for six weeks, knowing they will come back, versus having a valuable employee quit because of caregiving pressures and replacing them?"
Not surprisingly, there are health benefits for employees and their families associated with paid leave programs.
In "Policy Matters: Public Policy, Paid Leave for New Parents, and Economic Security for U.S. Workers," Linda Houser and Thomas P. Vartanian found that paid family leave reduces the likelihood of premature birth, improves breastfeeding establishment and duration and increases the chances of obtaining well baby care, in addition to improving the health of both mothers and children and decreasing health care costs in the longer term.
"Access to paid leave has also been linked to families' economic security and independence," the authors observed.
Valerie Young, a contributor to Woman in Washington, writes that "access to paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child reduces the likelihood that a family will be forced to resort to public support or food stamps."
High-ranking officials like Mayer have the edge on middle and lower-income families, Young adds, because their employers often offer paid parental leave.
That's why establishing a national paid leave policy is so important.
Kenneth Matos and Ellen Galinsky found in their 2012 National Study of Employers that "organizations that can offer more flexibility around reduced time, caregiving leaves and flex careers will have a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining employees as the aging work force and dual focus on personal and professional lives among younger employees become increasingly important drivers in the labor market."
Mayer is lucky; she lives in California, one of two states in the Unites States that has a paid family leave program. Employees in California and New Jersey may take up to six weeks of paid leave through a program financed entirely through small payroll tax contributions.
Maternity leave is but one step in the right direction of paid family leave. Next up? Paternity and eldercare leave.
Huffington Post's Crary noted, "In New Jersey, men make up about 12 percent of the parents seeking paid leave to bond with a new child. In California, men's share of the leave has risen from 17 percent to 26 percent since 2004."
Men and women are closing the gender gap in caregiving, and our leave policies must reflect that new reality.
Furthermore, child care is not the only form of family care. As Work+Life Fit's Yost points out, "we are all potential caregivers. We may not end up having children, but all of us have parents and aging relatives who will very likely at some point require care."
After all, a recent study by Pew Research Center found that despite increasing aspirations for women in the workplace, "being a good parent and having a successful marriage remain much more important than career success" for both men and women.
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Melody Wilson is the communications coordinator for the International Reporting Project. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Denver Post, Slate, and Bitch.