When it was announced last month that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, a Fortune 500 company, was six months’ pregnant at the time of her appointment, many commentators in online and traditional news media forums were approving. It was noted that Yahoo’s decision to appoint her was a sign that women had come a long way and were no longer as disadvantaged by their reproductive choices. When Mayer further announced that she would only be taking few weeks off on maternity leave following the birth of her baby son, and that she would work from home even during this brief period of leave, again the reaction of many commentators was positive. It was argued that a good example was being set and that women even at the very top of their professions could both reproduce and continue in their successful careers.
The issue of the successful woman ‘having it all’ resurfaced for debate. Some commentators were concerned that Mayer’s decision to work through an extremely brief maternity leave would raise the expectations of employers in relation to their own female employees. Several ‘mummy bloggers’ pointed out that Mayer may not realise how having a baby may affect her priorities. Interestingly enough, little mention was made of the huge attention given only weeks before to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, in which she identified the difficulties she and others had experienced in juggling motherhood with an extremely high-profile and demanding job.
To make it clear, I do not doubt that Mayer will be able to perform at the level expected of her during her pregnancy and following the birth of her son. I agree that it is salutary that she was promoted to the top job by recruiters who knew of her pregnancy. I imagine that Mayer will not display the projectile vomiting and uncontrolled emotional volatility evidenced in the pregnant women in the recent film What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an exaggerated portrayal of pregnant embodiment played for laughs (see here for my previous post on this). What I do want to do in contributing to this debate is bring the body back in (rather more subtly than this film did) and suggest that these bodily experiences may make Mayer’s first year in the job more challenging than if she had not gone through them.
All the noises of approval emerging in the traditional and social media, and the comments of Mayer herself, failed to acknowledge that pregnancy, childbirth, the post-partum period and the care of infants are supremely embodied experiences. The classic Cartesian mind/body split is evidenced in these discussions, assuming that one’s disembodied mind or will can and should take precedence over and control one’s fleshly body.
On one level the acceptance that a pregnant woman soon to give birth will be able to manage a top-level job is a feminist dream. It counters the common ideas in circulation for centuries that women are inferior to men because they are less able to exert rational control over their bodies and are therefore less capable of jobs involving high-level cognitive functioning. Such assumptions position the pregnant, menstruating or menopausal woman in particular as emotionally volatile, a slave to her hormones.
On the other hand, however, the discourse celebrating Mayer’s choice to work through her brief maternity leave loses sight of the fleshly body altogether. This attempt to make the body disappear bears with it its own limitations. Even those women who experience few health problems and feel very well during pregnancy cannot avoid the sheer physical reality of moving through space with their expanding and much heavier bodies, as the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) has noted.
So too, childbirth, however it is experienced, demands much of women’s bodies, and it takes some time for women to recover in the postpartum period. This is especially the case if they have had the major abdominal surgery of caesarean section, extensive damage to the perineum or other physical trauma from a vaginal birth. Mayer will be dealing with these embodied experiences at the same time as she is learning to interact with and care for her new infant. Her baby son will himself be taking some time to adjust to life outside of the womb and making his own embodied needs powerfully apparent.
Although no doubt Mayer will have plenty of help from paid and unpaid carers, unless she employs a night-nanny or her partner rises to deal with bottle-feeds, nappy changes and infant soothing during the night, she will experience major sleep deprivation. Even if she does not breastfeed, she will have to deal with leakages and physical sensations as her breasts adjust to hormonal changes following the birth.
Mayer is in a rare top position as CEO of a major company. Yet this exalted position means that she, even more than other women, will be expected to conform to what philosopher Drew Leder (1990) has termed the ideal of the ‘absent body’: the body of which we and others are unaware because it is so fully under our rational control. The culture of the professional world in particular seeks to ignore the demands of the fleshly body. Cultural geographer Robyn Longhurst’s (2001) research with New Zealand and Scottish people in managerial work positions, both men and women, found that the interviewees strongly emphasised the importance of presenting a corporate body image at work. This involved being well-groomed, wearing a standard ‘corporate uniform’ of business suit and having a body that was physically fit and not overweight. Even cosmetic surgery is now becoming part of the techniques of the presentation of the professional self for some people in their quest to present the most perfect image possible.
All these practices of the self combined to present a corporate identity that was considered tightly controlled of its body boundaries, impervious to outside penetration and therefore powerful and rational. In such a context, the body, in effect disappears: its demands, its privations, its leakages, are all covered over in the interests of presenting a self that is rational, of the mind, competent and controlled. It is for this reason, as Longhurst (2001, 2005) points out, that women in such workplaces often find it difficult when they are pregnant and experiencing nausea, fatigue, the frequent need to urinate or crippling back-ache, all common bodily experiences in pregnancy, as they feel that they must not let their bodies betray them.
In pointing out these issues, I want to avoid any suggestion that women are any more at the mercy of their bodies than are men and that they therefore cannot perform successfully in top-level jobs. John Coates (2012) showed in his recent book on male traders at the New York Stock Exchange that much of their behaviour is influenced by fluctuations in hormones such as testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. This leads in some cases to excessive exuberance bordering on mania or conversely pessimism that can then affect their decision-making and have major repercussions for the economy. As Longhurst’s research showed, both men and women in the professional workplace are expected to conform to a certain body demeanour and presentation. Those individuals who are overweight, perspire heavily, have a drinking problem, have a disability or chronic illness, are emotionally volatile and so on are viewed as not conforming to the desired norm, regardless of their gender.
I certainly do not wish to support contentions that pregnant women and new mothers should withdraw from the public sphere, as was common in previous eras. But a continuing corporate culture in which the demands and needs of the living, fleshly body are ignored or discounted potentially disadvantages all workers
Coates, J. (2012) The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom or Bust. Toronto: Random House Canada.
Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Longhurst, R. (2001) Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. London: Routledge.
Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.
Young, I.M. (1990) Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.