Maternity is an Ability, not a Liability

When Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced recently that he is taking two months of paternity leave after his wife Priscilla Chan gives birth to their daughter, discussions on paternity leave and parental benefits exploded on social media.

Americans are making a big deal out of Zuckerberg’s announcement and comparing it to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave of merely two weeks and “working throughout” when she gives birth to twins.

Anne Weisberg, senior vice-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York said: “Mayer’s announcement is disappointing. She’s a role model and I think she should take whatever Yahoo’s parental leave is. The mark of a great leader is that they have a strong team and don’t need to be there all the time themselves.” She added that how corporate leaders handle the issue of parental leave is “hugely symbolic” for their own employees.

Almost everyone is praising Zuckerberg while criticizing Mayer. Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, noted: “The boss taking a leave sends an important message to employees that the company policy is authentic.”

But there are those who who think that Mayer is just acting like any other CEO. Male CEOs are not asked to justify themselves and explain why they are not taking more time off to take care of their children so why should female CEOs be any different? Mayer is one of only four percent of women who are CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. Interestingly, she is also one of very few women who can afford to pay for child care that will allow her to return to work so soon after giving birth. So Mayer hardly represents all women in the workplace.

Why are Americans talking about this so much? It is because the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have a national paid family leave policy. Yes, the US does not guarantee paid leave for mothers. In fact, there are only two others countries in the world, aside from the US, that do not guarantee paid maternity leave — Papua New Guinea and Oman.

So far, only three states — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — have passed and implemented full-scale family leave policies. And the technology industry is leading the way in terms of having the best parental leave policies in the US. Google has 18 weeks paid maternity leave and 12 weeks paternity leave. Apple offers four weeks off before birth and 16 weeks off after, and fathers and adoptive parents can take six weeks off. Yahoo offers 16 weeks paid time off for mothers and eight weeks for fathers and parents of adopted children. Facebook offers equal time off of four months for all parents and a bonus for baby care. Twitter offers 20 weeks paid time off.

Tech companies offer generous parental leave benefits because technology is a very competitive industry that relies on young innovative and creative talents. In a Millennial leadership survey in 2014, the study found out that the number one thing the millennials (those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) would change about the workplace is work/life balance. So if companies want to attract the new generation, they have to show their support for a healthy work/life environment.

Capitalism, the ideology Americans predominantly practice and preach, is not very conducive to work/life balance. In fact, it believes that your work is your life and it should be more important than anything else. How else can you expect to keep the economy running and keep the profits coming? People have to work, work, work!

Millennials may be changing the work environment now as they push for more work/life balance, but in reality most men do not take parental leave. Gender stereotypes dictating that men should be more career-oriented and ambitious than women persist. The Western workplace ideology promotes the concept of “ideal workers” as those who are focused almost solely on their careers.

This “ideal worker” is tailored to men, who have traditionally been tasked the family responsibility of being the primary provider while women have served as the primary caregiver. In fact, part of what defines manhood and masculinity is a man’s ability to provide for his family. And what makes an ideal wife and mother is someone who sacrifices everything, including her career, to take care of her husband and children.

That is also the reason why men and women do not receive equal pay. Men need to be paid more because they are the primary provider while women who work are seen as just working for “supplemental income,” just to support the men in their lives. Following this logic, it seems that only men need to work and have a career. Women are forced to work only if the men need them to augment their income. Women have no desire to work and have careers of their own because what they want most in life is to stay home and care for their men and their children.

That is ridiculous to hear in the year 2015, right? But most of our policies remain rooted on that belief even when social realities have changed. Gender inequality still persists despite the presence of strong feminist movements. Because our concept of masculinities and femininities remain outdated. We still assign a higher value to being a man — strong and superior — and view anything related to being a woman weak and inferior. Until we value men and women the same way and look at both masculine and feminine traits as present in all human beings, gender inequality will always be a problem that will affect everything else in our lives.

Women are the only humans capable of giving birth. Because maternity is an ability related to women, it is assigned a lesser value. Women get discriminated at work because they can get pregnant and therefore would take longer leave from work and take more time off while their children grow up (since they are expected to be the primary caregiver in the family). That is why employers prefer male workers who do not take as much time off from work.

That is some twisted logic in my opinion. Shouldn’t women get as much as men since they provide the human resources of the world? If women decide not to give birth, where will we get the future workers of our economies? And men should equally participate in child care beyond making money. It is in their best interest, too, that children turn out to be good, productive contributors to society. Everybody – both men and women – can and should provide and care for their families.

In the debate on who has set the better example for us between Zuckerberg and Mayer, I am with Zuckerberg on this one. Mayer, in trying to be like any other male CEO, reinforced the belief that maternity is a liability rather than an ability that must be valued and supported. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, showed that having a child is a responsibility that should equally be borne by mother and father and must be considered as important as the responsibility of running a multi-billion company.