Marissa Mayer: trailblazer or feminist nightmare?

Faith Merino · July 18, 2012 · Short URL:

She's shaking up the corporate tech world, but is she also setting us back?

When Marissa Mayer’s appointment to the helm of Yahoo was announced Monday, headlines began churning about how she can unsink the ship.  She’s a product person; Ross Levinsohn was a media guy.  What’s going on?!?!

But then a few hours later, Mayer announced that she and investor husband Zack Bogue are expecting their first child—a baby boy—in October.  Now the conversation has turned from what Mayer is going to do to how Mayer is going to do it.  And I can honestly say that for the first time in my life, I have heard a conversation about how someone’s pregnancy will affect shareholders.

Pardon my hyperbole, but this is the most earth-shattering, game-changing pregnancy in recent history.  It’s even bigger than Beyoncé’s pregnancy.

The stakes are impossibly high for Marissa Mayer.  She’s setting a new precedent, and no matter what ends up happening, she’ll be made an example of.  If Yahoo DOES fail, or Mayer finds the work/family juggle to be more than she can handle, it’ll be used as evidence for why companies shouldn’t install women of childbearing age as CEO—let alone pregnant women.  If she succeeds, it’ll be seen as evidence that truly driven women who are committed to their job don’t take full maternity leave.

The rugged feminist cowboy in me is cheering Marissa Mayer on as a trailblazer for our time—the one who shattered the glass ceiling.

The mom in me is screaming “OMG WTF IS SHE DOING SHES RUINING EVERYTHING” (my inner netspeak monologue speaks in all caps with no punctuation).

Mayer says she plans to take a working maternity leave that will be no more than a couple of weeks, and then she'll presumably be back at work full-time.  Is this setting a bad precedent for other working pregnant women across the country?  The news comes at a time when 51% of women in the U.S. have no paid maternity leave at all, and 49% make their own maternity leave by cobbling together all of their sick days, vacation time, and disability leave.  The United States is one of only four countries that doesn't guarantee new mothers the right to paid maternity leave--the other countries being Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea.  Part of the problem is that U.S. corporate culture still holds onto the myth that dedicated employees don't take breaks.

But the reality is that the life of a pregnant CEO is different.  And she's not just any CEO now--she's the CEO of Yahoo, which has now had five CEOs in the last year and has been suffering with a major identity crisis for the last eight years.  The Q2 earnings report showed flat revenue, which came in just shy of analyst estimates at $1.08 billion.  Mayer will not only be giving birth to a brand new human being; she will be orchestrating Yahoo's rebirth as an Internet superpower.  She will have two babies--but one comes with a bunch of whiny shareholders.

Mayer is already at a statistical disadvantage as 74% of senior female executives in the U.S. have partners who work full-time, whereas 75% of senior male executives have partners who don’t work at all.  Not only is Mayer competing with the common American dictum that the mother should sacrifice her career to be the primary caregiver, she’s also competing with male CEOs who have a little woman at home to manage the daily household chores, like making dentist appointments, picking up dry-cleaning, attending parent-teacher conferences, or delousing a child.

But Mayer won’t be the only one struggling.  Fully 90% of working mothers have experienced some sort of work/life conflict. 

Since the news came out about Mayer’s pregnancy, the obligatory sexist rhetoric has been full-steam-ahead.  There’s this Forbes article that not only refers to Mayer’s pregnancy as “her condition” and compares it to Steve Jobs’s terminal cancer (yeah…let that sink in for a second), but actually devotes a significant portion of the story to discussing Mayer’s advanced maternal age and the potential complications that could arise—and how they could affect shareholders.

Then there was a lovely bit from Morning Joe, when business pundit Brian Sullivan weighed in on Mayer’s pregnancy with the following advice: “Take some time off.  Yahoo’s been in trouble for years.  My advice: take some time off.  Get your baby.  Raise the kid for a little bit, and then, work on the company when you can.”

The stink-eye from anchor (and working mom) Mika Brzezinski is epic.

Even the Washington Post had something to say about Mayer’s pregnancy: “Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy was apparently ‘not an issue’ for Yahoo’s board when they appointed her to be its president and chief executive.  You’ve got to be kidding. How could it not be? They must be the most evolved board on Earth.  Or a group of people in extreme denial… Mayer told Fortune she plans to take a maternity leave of a few weeks and ‘work throughout it.’ Marissa, don’t do it! Having a newborn is a special time and it goes fast. Enjoy this opportunity to get to know your baby.”

We all know that this conversation wouldn’t be happening if Yahoo had appointed a male CEO whose wife was going to deliver a baby in three months—because we all know that his wife would be the one to stay home and take care of the baby so he could be back in the office the next day.  Would anyone be telling him to “take some time off, raise the kid for a little bit, and then work on the company when you can”?  Or to “enjoy this opportunity to get to know your baby”?

Many have been pointing to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in the Atlantic, daftly titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  I don’t know who came up with that title, but it’s horrendous—because the point of Slaughter’s article is not that women can’t have it all, but that no one can have it all. In the article, Slaughter—the first female director of policy planning at the State Department—discusses the philosophy of rugged American individualism and competition, and how it has resulted in long work hours and a job-comes-first workplace culture that pervades virtually every industry and every sector.  It isn’t just tech—it’s also government, and academia, and finance, etc.  

And it doesn’t just hurt women, who are more likely to be the primary caregiver of their children.  It hurts men, as well, who aren’t expected to take time off for the birth of a child, who are expected to come to after-hours meetings at six o’clock, who are expected to be able to drop everything to come in on a weekend instead of going to their kid’s soccer game.

The point is that we shouldn’t be telling Marissa Mayer to realign her priorities.  We should be demanding that the workplace evolve and adapt to changing times.  The workplace has long been built around the 1950s male breadwinner who worked full-time while his wife stayed home with the kids.  The 1950s are over.  Today, more than 70% of women with children under the age of 18 are employed.

Yahoo is shaking shit up.  Maybe it will be one of the first major tech companies to really reevaluate how it respects its team members’ need for work/life balance—because the fact is that men and women are different, and they bring different things to the family table.  Breastfeeding isn’t something that can be divvied up equitably.  And there’s the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are physically and emotionally transformative events. 

But maybe having a pregnant CEO will highlight those realities that are felt by all working parents—especially working moms—and will help us evolve as a nation (not to put even more pressure on Mayer).

Personally, though, I would be happier if Mayer took a slightly longer leave to relearn to walk, like the rest of us had to.

Because we working moms have to stick together, I will celebrate Mayer’s new addition with a picture of my kid in a shopping cart.

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