Many companies tout the value of diversity but then fail to implement and support
policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity within the organization. They fail to walk the talk. This concept of walking the talk is crucial in moving family-friendly and work-life-balance initiatives from theoretical policies to pragmatic practices which serve to support women’s organizational success. This is why there was so much public controversy and criticism when Yahoo Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Marissa Mayer announced that she would be taking two weeks of maternity leave and working throughout that shortened maternity leave after the birth of her twins. Mayer had been responsible for implementing family-friendly policies such as doubling Yahoo’s maternity leave from eight to 16 weeks of paid time off. This is obviously an awesome step in the right direction. The controversy and criticism that emerged regarding her public position on her maternity leave though, was relative to Mayer’s position as a role model within women’s advanced leadership. As a high profile leader, everyone is watching her behavior and her choices. These choices are seen as more than a women’s personal choice because of the potential impact and precedent resulting from her behavior.
While I, like many women, as a rule, am hesitant to call out other women’s choices (after all, we are in this together!) I can’t help getting hung up on the powerful example leaders set through their actions, and how that influences the attitudes and behaviors of others. This is why there was a level of frustration with Mayer’s choice. Anne Weisberg, senior vice-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York expressed her disappointment with Mayer’s decision in a September 2015 interview with the Guardian asserting “She’s a role model and I think she should take whatever Yahoo’s parental leave is—the mark of a great leader is that they have a strong team and don’t need to be there all the time themselves.” In this example, it can be argued that the values Mayer is living are not aligned with her stated vision and policies. Not only do her actions suggest that in spite of the increased benefits she has implemented as CEO, in practice, women don’t need the time, but on a larger scale this choice affects every person’s morale in the company as it suggests that they can’t be successful or fully productive without Mayer. How demoralizing that message must be to both the men and women who support Yahoo’s initiatives and Mayer’s vision.
The reality is that how leaders behave is often much more powerful than corporate policy. As such, the way leaders handle work-life-balance initiatives is hugely symbolic and influential. Leaders set the example and the standard for their organizations and often, their industries. This is especially true for women who are so underrepresented at the highest levels or organizational leadership. If female leaders don’t walk the talk when it comes to parental leave, even the lowest-ranked employee in the field will feel those repercussions in the form of expectations and criticisms. Living our values is very powerful. When we live our values (rather than espouse policy), we let people know that they can make similar life choices and that those choices will be respected rather than judged. This is very empowering. Hip-hop mogul and author Russell Simmons (2014) provides a great example of walking the talk. He often espouses the value of life balance in his company, but then goes further to model the way by putting his daily yoga classes on his public schedule and letting everyone know that there is no appointment or urgent business issue that he is willing to cancel his yoga class for. This models his vision of work-life balance in a very tangible way which allows others to make similar choices without fear of stigmas or unspoken repercussions. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying”. So here’s the challenge to all leaders reading this post. Let’s go out and speak through our actions. We can make changes that help advance women in the workforce, but we have to be sure to walk the talk.