“There’s all kinds of different women who do this” – Marissa Mayer

July 18, 2012

In case you were hiding under a cave for the past couple days, Marissa Mayer is the new CEO of Yahoo! The commentary around the appointment really crosses the full spectrum.

On one side, the vocal female side, we have the “woo hoo” factor – because she’s a woman, because she’s an engineer, because she’s Marissa Mayer, because she’s awesome.

I am proud to say I’m in this camp. I saw Mayer speak at The Grace Hopper Conference back in 2006, and I’ve admired her since. This is a woman who studied computer science, loved computer science, always kept her femininity (a former dancer, she now sits on the board of not one, but two ballet companies) and now is leading a major technology company. That is what this whole thing is about for me, and I give Yahoo a lot of kudos for getting the message.

There’s an offshoot of that camp, which is also extremely excited, not because she’s a female but specifically because she’s mid-pregnancy. There’s a fabulously sarcastic comment on BBC news from a person who summarised the story as “pregnant woman has job.” Of course, one of the enduring issues that women face in the workforce is discrimination against pregnancy. It is common knowledge that interviewers have enquired into marriage status, duration of marriage and other such personal questions in a bid to understand if a baby is on the cards in the near future. And of course the end result is to reject the female candidate, because companies aren’t interested in babies.

Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to join that camp because while I totally understand Mayer’s decision to work through her maternity and not take much leave, it’s not a choice that I would advocate. I am sure she and her husband have more than enough money to hire an army to raise their child, but it’s not an ethos that I subscribe to. I don’t really think her pregnancy model is one to shout about.

There’s another camp that thinks while this is a great appointment, it isn’t anything to celebrate. Anne-Marie Slaughter recently made headlines with her article stating that women can’t have it all. She reiterated her point by calling Mayer “superhuman” and therefore an inappropriate example of change. Changes comes with the real people, the women on the ground, the women that work for small companies that can’t afford to have an employee off for nine months, the women that don’t want to be stuck with statutory pay for nine months but have something better.

I get this, and I agree with this, but I don’t think change for the real people is an island. It is linked to everything and everyone else. Having women like Mayer at the top is one of the many things that will drive endemic change lower down.

Speaking of real people, there’s one comment on BBC News that I really liked:

This isn’t ground breaking, it’s just plain daft. Ground breaking would be for this lady to take a proper break to bring up her child to whatever age her and her partner see as appropriate, and then for her to return to work and still be able to get this sort of promotion.

That’s hitting the nail on the head, isn’t it? The fact of the matter is that many women don’t take maternity leave just because of the physical impact of labour or a c-section on their bodies, they take it because they want to bond with their child, raise their child, see their first smiles and words and steps, teach their child, and give them all that they can to be happy and healthy in this world. Priorities change when you have a baby. It’s fine for work to take a backseat. But children grown up, work comes back into play, and where do you go from there? Could Mayer have taken a couple years off to raise her child? Would Yahoo! have been knocking on her door then? I don’t think so. And that’s the real problem that real women face.

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