Ever since the news broke this week that Yahoo has hired Marissa Mayer to be its new chief executive officer, the media has been abuzz about the fact that she’ll be the first-ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It seems Yahoo leaders had no concerns about Mayer being six months pregnant when they offered her the job, setting a promising example for employers across the country.
The news is great for Mayer as a woman and a mother and, we hope, good for the company too. It’s encouraging to see a pregnant woman, who will soon be a working mom, in that kind of position. She is now one of only 19 female CEOs in the Fortune 500. But we know that not all employers have adopted such “evolved thinking” (as Mayer described it) when it comes to pregnant workers or the family friendly policies they need.
Despite the fact that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 to end blatant discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, pregnancy discrimination claims are on the rise. They have increased by 35 percent in the past decade, often because employers do not make minor accommodations for pregnant workers, even though they regularly make minor accommodations for workers who have had heart attacks or other health issues.
For those pregnant workers who do get a fair shot, like Mayer, too many struggle tremendously after their child arrives because most employers haven’t adopted family friendly workplace policies that enable new parents to take the time they need for their own health and the health of their children. Even Mayer admits she will be working through the short three weeks of leave she plans to take after her child is born. Three weeks may be Mayer’s choice, and that is OK; women need to be able to do what is right for them. But many women need or want more and don’t have that option.
Mayer is in the rare minority (11 percent) of private sector workers who have access to paid leave through their employers. Most depend on the up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but more than half of the workforce isn’t even eligible for that. Millions who are eligible under the FMLA can’t afford to take the unpaid leave it provides. That puts the majority of working parents in an untenable situation of having to constantly choose between work and family.
That’s why efforts to ensure family friendly workplaces and curb pregnancy discrimination are so important. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would effectively prevent employers from forcing pregnant women out of the workplace and help ensure they provide reasonable accommodations to women who want to continue working. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days to use to recover from illness or care for a child. And a proposal for a federal paid leave insurance program currently being developed in Congress would make it possible for all workers to receive a portion of their pay when they need to take leave for the arrival of a new child or to deal with a serious illness.
Marissa Mayer is fortunate to have an opportunity and choices many mothers do not. She will be able to afford high-quality child care, and she will almost certainly receive pay while on leave and paid sick days to care for her child. Yahoo has set an example by choosing to hire Mayer based on her merits. With Mayer at the helm, we hope that Yahoo aims to set an example as a family friendly employer in every sense to set the pace for other companies and motivate lawmakers who are far behind in adopting the policies working families need.