When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that she leaves work at 5:30 every night to have dinner with her kids, women oohed and ahhed with admiration. Former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic about women's balance between their personal and professional lives became the most-read article ever on the publication's website. Now, Marissa Mayer has announced that, as Yahoo's newest CEO, she is not only pregnant, but will be working during her maternity leave—a plan that has inspired much debate among working women.
The problem, say some women advocates, is that the conversation about whether women can "have it all" is being driven by women who already have so much.
"What [Mayer] does, what her circumstances are, has zero to do with what everybody else's situation is, or the vast majority of everybody else," says Sharon Lerner, author of The War on Moms and a senior fellow at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Lerner wrote about what she considers to be a wrongheaded discussion of women's workplace issues.
"The truth is, I'm just not that worried about Mayer, though everyone else seems to be," she wrote. "I'd say that the former Glamour woman of the year—who was Google's 20th employee, will earn a pay package worth a reported $59 million over several years at Yahoo and is married to a successful entrepreneur—is in a good spot, whatever she chooses. I'm pretty sure her son will be fine, too."
Remarkable women at the top of the ladder get recognition, but it may be appropriate to consider any worker with paid family leave as remarkable. In 2011, only 11 percent of U.S. private-sector workers and 17 percent of state and local government workers had access to paid family leave, according to the Labor Department.
A vast majority of workers do have access to unpaid leave—86 percent of all workers—but unpaid leave can pose its own difficulties.
"For many women who don't have a right to maternity leave, especially poorer women, when they have children, they have to either take a very short amount of time off...or quit their jobs," says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center.
According to the Census Bureau, nearly 59 percent of women who worked before pregnancy are back at work within three months.
Access to paid leave has also grown more prevalent. The percentage of first-time mothers who used paid leave crept over 50 percent in 2006-2008, according to the Census, up from 37 percent in the early 1980s and 43 percent in the late 1980s. This includes the use of sick, vacation, and other paid leave, as well as maternity leave.
Lerner is optimistic about expanded leave for new moms, noting that some states provide models for expansion of that leave. California women can receive temporary disability insurance payments for four weeks before and six weeks after giving birth, and New Jersey also has a program allowing workers six weeks of cash benefits to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.
However, those who go back to work after their time off can find themselves spending large shares of their paychecks on childcare—particularly those who are part of low-income families.
According to Census Bureau figures, families with children under 15 with working mothers making childcare payments spend an average of $138 per week on childcare, or 7.8 percent of the family's monthly income. But when the family makes $1,500 to under $3,000 per month, the family spends 20 percent of its income on childcare. When the family makes less than $1,500 per month, childcare eats up nearly half the family income.
It's not just about income; marital status also is a heavy factor in a family's well-being. As of 2010, 34.2 percent of people in families with a female householder and no husband present lived below the poverty line, more than double the rate for all families (13.2 percent).