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Yahoo’s BIG Experiment in Feminism: How We Can Help Marissa Mayer Succeed

She hardly needs my sympathy, but I feel sad for Marissa Mayer. It seems so unfair that the two most amazing things that may ever happen to her (having a baby and becoming CEO of Yahoo) have to occur simultaneously.

From where I stand, she has few alternatives though. Since my children were born I was (briefly) a stay-at-home mom and now work part-time. As I contemplate going back to work full-time, I think Mayer is in a for a world of heartache. There is no perfection option for the privileged, educated women who are lucky enough to have these dilemmas. As a SAHM, my brain began to atrophy. Now, as a part-timer, I feel like an uncoordinated juggler, never fully with my kids, never fully working. If I go back to work full-time, I expect to be slammed with shedloads of self-imposed guilt, constantly lamenting not spending enough time with my kids, doing school pick-up everyday, or volunteering at the preschool. Poor me.

But I feel equally annoyed at the two recent female examples of success. There is the Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook school of thought. She exhorts young college women to, when the time comes, “lean forward” in their careers, not settle for coasting for a few years when and if they have kids. I think this advice has the potential for evil. No one needs to push these young Type-A women to lean forward. They are pushing themselves hard enough. Why not give them permission to figure out what works for them? If “leaning forward” is what they choose, as MM seems to have, then they should go for it. But if that doesn’t work for you, it’s OK to let yourself be passed over for the big promotion. Really. It’s OK. We won’t put you in feminist jail.

That brings me to the recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter for The Atlantic in which Hillary Clinton’s former chief of staff says she quit her job because she figured out she “can’t have it all”. No kidding, Sister. I can only assume this article has been so popular because so many of us have thought, “I could have written that article a long time ago!” It took a high-level State department staffer to make the rest of the population actually notice the dilemma (admittedly priveledged) women face?

As a woman in her late 30′s, I’ve concluded that for me, now is not the time to coast in my career. I finally feel confident, with enough experience to actually have an educated opinion, and a track record to back me up. Technology and communications are changing just too rapidly to for me to disappear entirely into mommyland for a couple years. The options seem to be: constantly evolve and keep a foot in the door or get ready for a career change. I’ve decided to evolve. But I know many moms in their forties in their Act II: the former BBC News producer turned florist, the high power AG attorney turned private school fundraiser. We each have to find our own solution.

But how do we solve the bigger problem? The problem that conservatives think Mayer can’t be a first-time mother and run a corporation and that liberals have a knee-jerk reaction of, “Yes! Of course she can. Women can do ANYTHING.”

Marissa Mayer may have an incredibly supportive baby-whisperer of a husband and get lucky with an easy newborn who sleeps 5 hours straight within the first 2 weeks of his/her life.

Regardless, here’s what needs to happen to help her and other working women solve the can she/can’t she debate:

1. Post-natal help and paid maternity leave for EVERYONE.
Between boob dysfuction, post-partum depression and anxiety, and lack of sleep, the first 3 months of a newborn’s life takes its toll on many women’s ability to get up in the morning, much less achieve feats of corporate restructure.

2. Don’t expect Mayer to fit the mold of CEO.
Granted, I’m not a Yahoo shareholder, but I think we need to suspend judgment on Mayer’s tenure a little longer than we usually would. Special treatment? Maybe. But here are the facts: women are smart and work. Women have children. Ok, so let’s create a new reality.

3. Step up. No matter what a woman decides is the right “work-life balance” for her, let her (and help her) try different strategies.
A lawyer friend, who has a little girl and another on the way, tells me her most supportive colleagues are younger male lawyers, many of whom are married to now former lawyers who stay at home with the kids. They know just how tough having kids is and they don’t begrudge my friend for wanting to have kids and needing to work. The least supportive? Older women in the firm who sacrificed their lives to make partner and feel resentful.

The next year of Marissa Mayer’s life is the latest BIG experiment in feminism. And I’m excited to watch it unfold.

© 2012 Manoush Zomorodi, author of Camera Ready: How to Present Your Best Self and Ideas On Air or Online

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