Family Matters

Marissa Mayer: Is the Yahoo! CEO’s Pregnancy Good for Working Moms?

The Silicon Valley executive is expecting her first child, a boy, in October. Is it inevitable that the way she handles her pregnancy, maternity leave and new motherhood will play a role in how her job performance is assessed?

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New Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer

It doesn’t feel right to be patronizing toward Marissa Mayer, the former Google executive whom Yahoo! tapped as its CEO on Monday to rescue it from Internet infamy.

Mayer is smart, savvy, accomplished, superstylish — and pregnant. Talk about a role model for working mothers. But when Mayer told Fortune of her plans for her maternity leave — it will be “a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” she said — it was hard to suppress a mix of sympathy and skepticism.

Sympathy, because here’s a woman who has waited until her late 30s to get pregnant, which means that career has most likely come first for many years. Wouldn’t it be nice for her to take a few months to revel in new motherhood?

Skepticism, because nothing rocks your world like your first baby, a reality that Mayer has yet to fully appreciate. What if her baby has colic? What if Mayer battles postpartum depression? Becoming a parent is all about what-ifs. What if “a few weeks” of maternity leave just doesn’t cut it?

Mayer carries a heavy burden, whether she acknowledges it or not (she seems to steer clear of musing about the role of sexism in the tech industry). It’s hard to argue that her appointment isn’t a sort of gender bellwether. If she succeeds, she’ll be scoring one for the ranks of intelligent, ambitious working women who also happen to crave kids. If she stumbles — as have four other Yahoo! CEOs, including one woman, in as many years — it won’t be chalked up solely to the sheer difficulty of her task. It’s practically inevitable that her pregnancy will be cited. And that’s unfair. “I hope they don’t set her up and watch her every move,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute. “If we’re normalizing this, whatever happens to her — if she does well, if she doesn’t do well — it shouldn’t mean that other women who are pregnant shouldn’t be hired for senior jobs. She should not have to become the symbol of her generation.”

(MORE: Pregnant at Work? Why Your Job Could Be at Risk)

And yet she will be. Mayer’s impending juggle of work and family is nothing new, of course; it’s just writ large. “Her challenges are the kinds that many, if not all, working moms face,” says Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women & Families. “But she has the added benefits of having great economic privilege.”

In February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that pregnancy-related discrimination charges were up 35% in the past decade. That clearly wasn’t an issue for Mayer. Nor will she have to struggle with paying for high-quality child care. That alone sets her apart from the majority of working moms, who need to work to support their families while paying someone else a huge chunk of their salary to care for their kids.

There’s a term for the challenges that mothers face in the workplace. Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, calls it the “maternal wall.” Research in the American Sociological Review has found that given identical résumés, a mother is 79% less likely to be hired and 100% less likely to be promoted. Another study found that working moms who are very good at what they do are looked down upon. The reason female go-getters with children are disliked? They’re not perceived to be “good mothers.” Last year, angel investor Paige Craig went so far as to identify the elephant in the room when he shared his uneasiness about funding a company run by a pregnant woman. In a post for Business Insider that attracted more than 22,000 comments, he summed up his feelings:

“A pregnant founder / CEO is going to fail her company”

The Situation: I was contemplating an investment in this awesome crowd-sourced funding company in LA called Profounder. I love the vision: helping local brick & mortar businesses get funding from their community. The founding team, Jessica Jackley & Dana Mauriello, are incredible ladies with exactly the spirit and attitude I’m looking for in founders. We’ve talked extensively, had lunch together and I saw first hand the amazing talent & drive these two bring to the table. And then, a week later I find out Jessica is pregnant … and this dirty little thought pops in my head. I’m thinking how in the hell is this founder going to lead a team, build a company and change the world for these businesses carrying a kid around for the next few months and then caring for the kids after. I can’t say I personally know anything about it but birthing & raising kids seems like the toughest job around. And now I have a founder who has to be a CEO and a mother.

Ouch. Craig did go on to fund Profounder. But his publicly shared deliberations likely reflect the hesitations of many in American society.

(MORE: Should Pregnant Women Be Accommodated in the Workplace?)

Williams, whose institute has tracked every case of pregnancy discrimination filed since the 1970s, regularly hears of women who feel compelled to conceal their pregnancies or have job offers rescinded once their employers find out they’re expecting. The latter is illegal, of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

Yet for all the bias against working moms, there’s promise too. Williams is observing an increasing number of women being hired when they’re pregnant. Mayer is the just the latest and most prominent example — but her sheer visibility could herald a serious change in attitude. As Hanna Rosin noted on Slate:

I’d bet it’s the first time ever a company of this size and importance has hired an already pregnant woman to be its CEO … It’s one thing for an American company to know theoretically that its CEO has children somewhere at home being taken care of by a father or nanny or day care provider but it’s quite another for that company to see her dragging around visible evidence of her impending maternal state to a job interview, and then take her on anyway.

Now back to that skimpy maternity leave. Mayer certainly deserves to be able to take off at least three months, the amount of leave to which most employees are entitled under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Unfortunately, that’s not in the cards for her, even if that’s what she’d had planned at Google. Starting in October when she’s due, the new CEO of Yahoo! will have not one but two babies to care for. It’s hard to know which will be more demanding.

MORE: About That Atlantic Article, Why Working from Home Isn’t the Answer for Working Moms

11 comments
burpeema
burpeema

I find it really said that she is going to prioritize her job over the new life she is bringing into the world. Why even have a child? I'm a corporate working mom of 2 and my career goals have certinaly changed over the years, I used to want to be CMO now I am happy as an individual contributor because my family means so much more to me. Female CEOs for me is like women in combat, I believe they should have the right and choice, but I have no idea why they would want to.

NHFos
NHFos

Really enjoyed this post, not only well written, but brings up some very interesting points about the "unknown" of being a first time mom.  With my first pregnancy, I was Director-level at a large entertainment company;  one of those career-focused women thinking I'd take several weeks off and back to work.  Well, I ended up having major separation anxiety, and extending leave to five months (partially unpaid), and after back to work for four months I was practically doing back flips when my division was sold and I had the opportunity to be a SAHM.  Yes, I left over six-figures to zero figures, but I knew I had to take that time, and felt confident I could jump back in the job market when ready.  Fast forward to pregnancy #2, when I resolved myself to continue a few ongoing consulting projects but primarily continue to be a SAHM.  At seven months pregnant I came across a position on FlexJobs.com that I felt was too good to pass up, and had the ability to telecommute.  I submitted a cover, interviewed with the CEO, and was offered the job the next day, despite my pregnancy disclosure at the end of the interview.  I offer this example to mention that every person, pregnancy and new motherhood experience is different, and I do hope it paves the way for more acceptance of pregnancy and motherhood in the workplace.  There are flex-friendly companies out there and I think opportunities are growing for flexibility in the workplace in general.  Will be eager to see how things go for her over the next several months, and wish her the best.  

Doug Herman
Doug Herman

What a great choice by the Yahoo! board. Come October she's going

to deliver a beautiful baby boy (congrats to her) AND a healthy

beautiful bouncing baby Yahoo! (congrats to the shareholders.) If you

don't believe me then check out this Tumblr post: http://tumblr.pricingengine.co...

 

kaybee77
kaybee77

I say if she can pull it off, good for her.  However, the article raises some interesting questions- what if she gets PPD?  What if the baby has issues?  If she's planning on nursing, newborns eat every 2-3 hours.  How is she going to handle the sleep deprivation while trying to run a major corporation?  I also hope since she's only planning on taking a "few weeks" for her maternity leave, she wouldn't expect the same from her employees.

TuSA23
TuSA23

Here's an idea! How about we support our fellow females and stop nit-picking other women's choice in terms of pregnancy, labor and mothering. And how about we change the work environment to accommodate families! This isn't the 1950's anymore! 

CaraGianine
CaraGianine

You are disregarding the support available to this highly motivated and accomplished woman.  Sure, it would be lovely to fawn over a newborn.  However, she will likely not be bogged down with diapers, laundry, bottles and night feedings.  While her angel is sleeping for four hour chunks, I speculate that without a significant challenge this Type A overachiever would go nuts.   It may not be the way a suburban mom would get things done - but Ms. Mayer isnt a Suburban Mom, shes a Tech Mom.  What a lucky kid to have such a fantastic role model.  

kcarb1025
kcarb1025

Since YOU are already assessing her job and pregnancy, I guess the answer is yes. 

Trish
Trish

I'm 8 months pregnant and working as  director for a F500 company. I am also interviewing for any new interesting job opportunity that comes to attention. Reading about Ms. Mayer's new job is inspiring and has happened at the right time for me and am sure for many women like me.Managing a new child is a tough job, but companies with a long term vision need to understand that investing in the right talent also means accommodating their life situations to enable long term returns. I will consciously chose not to join a company that has a philosophy that does not agree with this and thus use this situation as a screen for the right companies to work for.

mattbm
mattbm

Your grammar doesn't seem to be Fortune 500 quality.