How Does Pregnancy Impact Mayer’s Job as Yahoo CEO?

Marissa Mayer speaks at the Privacy vs. Personalization breakfast at Fortune Brainstorm TECH (Aspen Institute Campus). Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune

When the news broke that Yahoo appointed Google exec Marissa Mayer to be CEO, the conversation centered around her qualifications. Heavy industry hitters Fred Wilson, Marc Andreessen and Michael Arrington came out in support of Mayer, citing her product experience, analytical thinking and hard work ethic as some of the many reasons they lauded Yahoo’s leader choice. Andreessen even went so far as to say that he was “stunned” that Yahoo could attract Mayer and Arrington called her a “new hope” for the company.

It was Mayer herself who broke the news of her advanced pregnancy mere hours after Yahoo’s announcement went live, prompting a new flurry of discussion around working mothers and leadership just weeks after Anne-Marie Slaughter stirred the pot with her Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

The question is: What impact, if any, does Mayer’s pregnancy have?

Should her pregnancy even be part of the conversation?

CSR consultant Andrea Learned voiced what many are undoubtedly thinking, “If she were a man who was expecting his first child, there would be ZERO conversation about it.” Is Mayer’s pregnancy, then, newsworthy?

It is not the first time that a woman who helmed a company took maternity leave, but it is the first time a pregnant woman took such a high-profile leadership position for a well-known company with as much as stake as Yahoo. Another ex-Googler, Sheryl Sandberg, made news when she left the company to take the number two spot at Facebook – and she was not pregnant, and that company was not struggling like Yahoo.

Fair or not, everyone will be watching to see how Mayer fares in the next several months as she takes on not only a new position at work, but at home, as well.

It makes the Yahoo board look good. Really good.

Mayer said that she informed the Yahoo board of her pregnancy during the interview process and they didn’t bat an eye. She told Fortune, “They showed their evolved thinking.”

After what seems like months of missteps, Yahoo played this one very smart. After the Slaughter article, it was great timing to appear to be a family-friendly, progressive organization. It put a new shine on a company that has taken a beating in recent months. Fenton Communications Senior VP, Susan McPherson, believes that Yahoo accomplished two important goals in one surprising, but very positive, move. “They hired an excellent candidate AND helped position Yahoo as a risk-taker, an innovative company (something that has been severely lacking) and one that is forward-thinking.”

By leaving out all mention of Mayer’s condition (she is not required to disclose her condition by law) and not commenting on it publicly (so far), Yahoo looks balanced and fair. Praise always has more impact if others voice it, and right now, Yahoo is basking in it for the first time in quite a while.

Alice Korngold of Korngold Consulting said, “The only relevant questions relate to Marissa Mayer’s qualifications, ability, and commitment to achieve the company’s greatest aspirations. I applaud the board for not considering maternity or motherhood an impediment to a woman’s ability to achieve to her fullest potential in leading the company.”

Jean Brittingham, founder of Brittingham Partners and SmartGirls Way, also applauds Yahoo.

Good for Yahoo for looking at Marissa as a whole person and understanding that ‘whole people’ have lives that include things like being in relationships, having kids, caring for aging parents and generally managing what we like to call ‘life.’  While Anne-Marie Slaughter certainly got a lot of attention, and probably a lot of sympathy for her recent article about her own personal decision to “not have it all,” it appears that some forward-thinking companies are looking for ways to redefine what ‘all’ is and assure equal access to the top for both genders.

What will Mayer do with her expanded role model status as a female leader and a working mother?

Mayer has been a visible presence at Google, speaking at many conferences and making media appearances on behalf of the company, so she has already assumed the mantle of role model for women in business and girls in STEM careers. Now, she will add working mother to her bio. Does this mean that she will join the conversation about women in leadership Sandberg has held in every high-profile forum in the land? What will her views about working mothers be once she is one?

Lisa Belkin wrote,

So what value and obligation does Mayer have to working mothers? (And she does have one. As long as women with children are the exception at the top they are, willingly or not, role models.) It is to be aware of what she has that others need. To create a culture where jobs are as flexible as possible, so all parents can mold them around their family needs. To understand that a pregnancy doesn’t diminish a woman’s brain cells, or her worth. And that being a parent makes you a better, more committed, more focused worker, not a lesser one.

So much pressure

The reason that so many are riveted by this story and all its facets is because right now, Mayer is poised to make history on several fronts. She is one of the youngest women to be appointed CEO of a major tech company. She is the first to assume such a high-profile role while pregnant. She is riding a wave of support into the c-suite while carrying the extremely heavy expectation to save the company Steve Jobs-style – all while learning to be a new mother.

So, what message will less-than-perfection send? What happens if Mayer stumbles in her professional capacity? On Forbes, Julie Zeilinger wrote that she believes that one of the deterrents to millennial women seeking leadership is that we set the bar so impossibly high for women and so low for men. Right now, Mayer’s bar is lost in the clouds. But her appointment due to her skills and hard work, and the added challenge of imminent motherhood, make her a person to watch.

McPherson said, “I think it’s a very positive move for all women in business as we should all have opportunities to lead businesses 1) if we desire and 2) if we have the talents and skills to do so. The more women we see in such roles, the more women that will toss their hats in to be considered.  To quote Rachel Sklar, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

image: Fortune Live Media via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

3 responses

  1. Is Marissa Mayer married, or is the baby’s father involved?? Nothing was mentioned in the comments I read.  Perhaps Sarah Palin could shed some light on how the dad can stay home with the baby when mommy has a high profile job.  Dad’s do it all the time, so good for Marissa!

  2. Great for Marissa!!! This is great for Yahoo’s pubic image. Motherhood is tough even for stay at home mothers but i know a woman can find a balance and excel at both. She is to be supported and encouraged.

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