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knocked up, not down

a few years ago, i was working for a company and a woman from my department went on maternity leave. shortly after she left, the "big boss", under the guise of making casual conversation, sauntered through the offices of all the female employees in their late twenties to mid-thirties and chatted about how incredibly disruptive it was to a company when a woman went on maternity leave- how she was really making it difficult for the whole company to keep working.

those who know me know that i made a choice to be a non-breeder long ago and have never wavered. however, that doesn't mean it wasn't incredibly insulting to have someone talking to me about all the problems i'd cause if i were to have a child. to say nothing of the fact that i knew other women at that company who wanted to have children. it was a tricky situation.

on the one hand, i know that what he was saying was true. in canada, parents are entitled to a year off in maternity/ paternity leave. [that is, they have one year total. generally the mother takes it, but it can be divided between the mother and the father, as long as they don't take more than a year combined.] that's a long time to go without an employee. you can hire a replacement, but there is always a training period and there will always be some slowdowns. and the smaller a company is, the more it's going to be affected by maternity leave.

but knowing that and saying it, particularly when you're in a position of authority, are two very different things. there were women who felt threatened when they got this little "friendly chat", or who felt like the company was trying to guilt-trip them into delaying starting a family at the least. companies aren't supposed to do that. but they do.

in fact, while companies are required to give returning mothers their same- or an equivalent- job upon returning to work, many have no compunction about changing the specifics of that job, or offering them a lateral move to a job they'd then have to learn from the ground up. in point of fact, that's exactly what happened to the woman who went on maternity leave at this particular company: she was offered another position in another department and a replacement hired for the position she held previously. i never talked to her about whether or not she wanted this other position. i suspect she didn't. but it makes things kind of difficult when your old job is occupied.

that doesn't make the decision a bad one, but it does illustrate the dangers to career women who want to start families. even with legal protection, you are still vulnerable to employers who believe the uterus is a time bomb, waiting to derail their corporate growth.

which is why it was both surprising and heartening to hear that yahoo's brand-new ceo is not merely a woman but a pregnant woman. the media reported that both her new job and her condition were revealed this week, but since she's apparently six months into term, i'm guessing that a few people might have figured it out already. and yet yahoo looked past the short-term issues and apparently saw someone who they believed could handle the job of reversing their floundering fortunes. it's a bold move and it's difficult to overstate just how bold it is.

one would hope that this might "normalise" the concept of hiring women for key positions regardless of whether or not they are starting a family. i suspect that it won't be quite so quick to catch on, however and that a lot of ceo's will shrug at the story and think [or say] "i wouldn't do that". but even if it takes a while to catch on, this establishes a precedent that's difficult to ignore. if melissa mayer succeeds as yahoo ceo, she will become a thing of legend. if she doesn't, she actually won't have done any worse than any of the other ceo's who have shuffled through yahoo in recent years.

way to go, sister. get back to us on which of your two new jobs is more demanding.

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