When newly-coronated Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that she and her husband were expecting their first baby in October, people who are not Marissa Mayer or Marissa Mayer's doctor immediately began speculating that having a baby would be a detriment to her ability to do her job. Some even went so far as to suggest that Mayer should take some time off from CEO-ing to focus on the baby, and other suggested that the nature of the American workplace needs to change in order to allow more women like Mayer to fulfill leadership roles. But are we focusing our concern about "having it all" on the wrong end of the economic spectrum? What about women in the shadows, working outside of 9 to 5, with no college degree, struggling to earn minimum wage? Spoiler alert: they get hosed.
Julie Smolyansky, the CEO of Lifeway Foods, has given birth twice since she took over her publicly traded company at age 27. Like most executives, she describes herself as a "highly motivated," "Type A" sort of person, and she said she has no doubt that the traits that she and other CEO's share means that Marissa Mayer will be able to pull mother/CEO double duty easily. "CEO's multitask all the time. It's just a different type of multitasking," she explained. Smolyansky certainly benefitted from living during an era when the face of the executive suite is changing; thanks to technological advances that were unavailable even 10 years ago, she was able to stay in touch with her employees and business partners via her Blackberry until she was literally in the delivery room. And after she gave birth to her first daughter in 2008, she was able to work from home for two weeks before returning to the office, and because she's the boss and because newborns "pretty much sleep all the time," Smolyansky was able to bring her daughter with her to work after her return. She set up a crib, took her infant daughter with her to meetings, and carried on running the company with her tiny offspring in tow. The entire time, she remained an effective executive; in 2008, during the height of the stock market upheaval, her company grew impressively. She had her second daughter in 2010, and worked a similar schedule the second time around, traveling, meeting, and running just as she had before she was pregnant ("I did get a little short of breath sometimes," she admitted,"but that was it.")
Some important distinctions between the challenges Smolyansky dealth with and those Marissa Mayer will likely face as the first ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company. First off, Smolyansky's Lifeway Foods deals primarily in a healthy food called kefir (a yogurt-like dairy product that can be drank or frozen that — well, let's be honest, I'd bathe in the stuff. It's delicious). The health food industry set is decidedly more progressive than the sausage party tendencies of the tech industry. But things are changing; technology is evolving, and Marissa Mayer of all people is in a position to push for the development of tools and technology that will allow her and women like her to enjoy a little more workplace flexibility.
Less enabled and empowered are women who are already disenfranchised in their professional lives. While executives like Mayer and Smolyansky deal in information, communication, and personal interaction — tasks that can be expedited with technology and occasionally done remotely — a woman who works behind the cash register at a convenience store or cleaning hotel rooms doesn't have the same luxury. There's no "working from home" if work, by definition, cannot be done at home. And some prominent female leaders are pushing to change that.
In New York City, Gloria Steinem has joined forces (like the Power Rangers, or Captain Planet's Planetteers) with 200 other prominent female leaders to urge City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to allow a vote on a measure that would require all employers with 5 or more employees to give their employees at least 5 paid sick days per year. Steinem claims the measure would overwhelmingly benefit women, since ladies are the ones who are often stuck cleaning up toddler vomit, and women who work in low-income jobs are unlikely to be given paid time off by their employers. But the bill's been tabled, and won't likely be considered this year.
As it stands now, the US has the dubious distinction of being the only industrialized country doesn't require employers to provide paid maternity leave to employees, which means that it's entirely optional for employers to offer leave as a perk, which means that middle-to-high income women who work in white collar jobs for companies that must compete with other companies for skilled workers can utilize employer- provided paid time off after the birth of a child, whereas women working in lower income jobs often can't. And while it's criminal for employers to discriminate against pregnant employees, the law says they have to treat them as they'd treat any other temporarily disabled employee; if they provide additional bathroom breaks, a place to sit, or water bottles, or make similar accommodations for someone with a broken leg, they have to do the same for a pregnant woman. Women like Marissa Mayer and Julie Smolyansky can work around this; women like the lady who cleans the office at the end of the day can't.
A pregnant CEO can hire an assistant and work from home, a pregnant janitor with an unsympathetic employer can find a new job. Can anyone have it all if some of us can't even have half?