Is anyone else tired of the “can women have it all” debate? Before someone calls me sexist and insensitive, let me explain why I wouldn’t mind a moratorium on discussion of this issue.
The controversy over whether women can indeed “have it all” -- meaning, some elusive, perfect balance of work and family life -- encapsulates everything that is wrong with contemporary media. Firstly, the very framing of the question creates an unrealistic, unreachable ideal, which most women will naturally fall short of, in what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy; second, it takes advantage of (and possibly even encourages) women’s insecurity and doubts in a clever ploy to engage them in an endless dog-chasing-its-tail discussion with no possible resolution; and third, it drags in individuals to serve as “case studies” and “examples” who are not at all typical, thus doing a huge disservice to both them and the readers who are asked to look up to them. Most infuriating, it does all this while masquerading as an advancement of women’s interests.
Taking these complaints in reverse order, I will start by saying I feel bad for Marissa Mayer, who thought she was getting a dream job as CEO of Yahoo but actually was apparently agreeing to serve as a blank canvas for American women -- egged on by the media -- to project their own hopes, fears, and frustrations about achieving a work-life balance.
On one hand, Mayer is “lucky” to be able to take the top spot at Yahoo in spite of her pregnancy; so we can tick off “envy.” On the other hand, by caving into the male hierarchy and taking a minimal amount of maternity leave, so she is a coward, turncoat, and sellout to the cause of women everywhere; let’s tick off “resentment.” And she’s apparently doing all this without realizing that she is a symbol, standard-bearer, or whatever, to millions of women who admire her; that would be a feeling of wounded pride at being ignored.
In fact, Mayer is none of these things. Yes, she is like many women in that she has a career, and a baby, and is struggling to juggle them; but she is operating at such a rarefied level that picking her as a subject -- either to set her up as a role model, or lambast her as a traitor -- is simply absurd. Because treating any CEO of a major company as representative of anything is absurd: they’re not, period.
Conceding that men don’t have to grapple nearly as much with these issues, just consider these (yes, far less existentially urgent) analogies: as a man, how should I feel about the fact that Rick Davidson, the 51-year-old president and CEO of Century 21 Real Estate, went mountain climbing in Alaska over last year’s July 4th weekend to raise money for Easter Seals? Or that Mark Cuban gets to hang out with famous athletes? Or that Richard Branson is, you know, Richard Branson? The answer is, nothing: I should, and do, feel absolutely nothing, because I do not feel compelled to compare myself to individuals who are by definition outliers.
In short, the compulsion to take an extraordinary individual, set them up as a model for others, then criticize those others for falling short -- while also deriding this individual as uncaring or unresponsive, for failing to “advance the cause” -- is simply insane: supposedly an attempt to be constructive and “further the national dialogue,” it is actually downright corrosive, even toxic.
The whole process is even more absurd because nobody really knows how Marissa Mayer actually feels about her situation: is she stoked because she thinks, as many surmise, that she’s “having it all?” Is she secretly bummed that she doesn’t get to take more time for maternity leave? In typical newly-appointed-CEO fashion, of course, she says she is stoked about Yahoo and its future, but otherwise basically reveals nothing -- so all this talk about “having it all” is based mostly on psychological projection.
Finally, by setting up Mayer as a standard bearer, the media also implies that her appointment will have some impact on the way women are treated in the work force at large. Okay, maybe this is true for a very, very select group of women -- e.g., the high-powered execs who, during the course of an interview with the board of directors, have to hear “well, Marissa Mayer could do it, why can’t you?” Once again, if you’re lucky enough to hear this (admittedly obnoxious) sentiment, you are already operating at a level which is not at all typical. I would venture the reality for most women, in this crappy economy, is closer to, “I’ll say anything to get this job. My family? Not a problem, they won’t interfere! My husband, who is out of work, can take care of them!” Yes, it’s horribly unfair, but the truth hurts -- and for these women (the vast majority) Marissa Mayer’s problems, or triumphs, with her $129 million deal, might as well be taking place on another planet.