Whether she wanted to or not, Marissa Mayer has become quite the poster child for the “Can women have it all?” debate. Her story – pregnant ex-Google exec is hired to be CEO of flailing but still powerful Yahoo – is certainly newsworthy. Indeed it is sadly and strikingly newsworthy for a society that still fancies itself more of a meritocracy than not.
Which is why I’ve been so disappointed by the debate around Mayer’s new position. Every major article I’ve seen on the subject falls somewhere along one of these two spectrums.
- Trailblazing pioneer <----------------------------------------------------------------------> Wealthy exception
- Who cares? It’s her life. <------------------------------------------> She has no idea what she’s getting into.
As much as I’d like to place myself firmly in the “Who cares?” camp, as long as the debate over “having it all” rages on, I can’t. Every time I read another article rehashing the same old points about feminism, economics, and women’s choice to opt out, I can’t help but wonder: where are the men in all this?
I don’t just mean, where are the men covering the story (there have been a few), but where are the men? Why have we omitted one half of the population from this discussion? Most importantly, as we continue to debate whether or not it’s possible for women to have it all, what are the roles and responsibilities of the men with whom we share this society?
When was the last time you heard anything about a male CEO getting ready to have a baby? How many interviews with male executives have you read about the challenges of juggling work and family? How often do we criticize male leaders for looking tired, dressing poorly, speaking out of turn?
The challenge of “having it all” is still treated as a “women’s problem” (or worse, a choice) rather than a societal problem, and, increasingly, an economic problem.
With all due respect to the perfectly valid choices of some women to favor family over career or vice versa, there are larger institutional forces at work here than just choice.
We would never treat racism as merely a “minority problem”, marriage equality as a “gay problem”, or child poverty as a “child problem”. We have not resolved these challenges anymore than we’ve achieved gender equality, but we have made progress largely because our public discourse has evolved to understand that they affect – not just disparate groups – but the health of an entire society.
People who were seemingly unaffected by (perhaps even benefitting from) these problems – white people, heterosexual people, loving parents – decided to join the disenfranchised and say,
“No. I am not a minority, but I don’t want to live in a society where one’s race determines one’s opportunity. I am not gay, but I don’t want to live in a society where two consenting adults can’t get married. I don’t abuse my children, but I don’t want to live in a society that allows children to be abused.”
And we now need men to do the same for women. Because like it or not, women can’t have it all, whatever “all” is, in a vacuum, and framing the discussion as purely a women’s issue does a disservice to both women and men seeking to lead self-actualized lives.
I do not seek to abdicate responsibility on behalf of women and imply that men alone can save us, nor do I seek to paint all men as willing collaborators in some great oppressive scheme. But the forces of gender and societal norms are more nuanced and interdependent than we often care to believe, and those with the power to shift and question those norms are often the same people, male or female, who benefit from maintaining the status quo.
I look forward to the day a pregnant woman becomes CEO of a major company, and no one even thinks to remark upon it, except perhaps casually, as one might remark upon the color of one’s eyes.
But that day won’t come until men and women together decide what kind of society they want to build.