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