Marissa Mayer's new job

Marissa Mayer must rescue Yahoo and fend off projections people put on her pregnancy – including other mothers

Published July 17, 2012 11:13PM (EDT)

Congratulations, Marissa Mayer! You've got a big new job, running the once-great, now hugely troubled, tech behemoth Yahoo.

Oh, and I hear you're having a baby.

The Google standout will certainly have her hands full turning around Yahoo. Doing it with a new baby on the way may seem daunting. But that's the (comparatively) easy part. Her real challenge is going to be coping with the way the nation projects its ideas about pregnancy and motherhood onto famous high-achieving women. And right now the most intense sorts of social pressures may be coming not from men, but women.

I don't want to let Mayer's male colleagues off the hook. She'll have to deal with the various odd and gendered responses her pregnancy triggers in men, for sure. But Mayer is birthing her baby right in the middle of a new round in the old "having it all" debates, and so the most vexing reactions might well come from women.

It's no secret that Anne Marie Slaughter's thoughtful but button-pushing Atlantic piece, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," was written at least partly as a rejoinder to Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg's storied advice to high-powered women: to "lean in" and declare their commitment to their careers even as they also want families, or as she put it memorably, "Don't leave before you leave." Slaughter described young career women who felt intimidated and even blamed by Sandberg's advice. "Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach," Slaughter wrote. "We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: 'What’s the matter with you?'" (Since the two primary parties are ladies, they frame their difference of views not as a debate but a dialogue.)

For the record, I don't disagree with any of the points Slaughter makes about how hard it is to balance work and family, but I was a little bit put off by the way she seemed to at least partly blame feminism for the problem. (Rebecca Traister says everything I wanted to here.) A lot of my reaction was probably triggered by the way the Atlantic framed the piece, and the fact that it was in the Atlantic, a magazine I admire but whose dubious contribution to feminism has been to give us the hectoring of Caitlin Flanagan. For my part, I found Sandberg's advice daring and a little bit bracing. I urge young women to read Slaughter and Sandberg and then make their own choices.

Mayer's news comes against that backdrop. It's as though she has two choices: "Lean in," and have your baby delivered on your lunch hour and be back for your 2 p.m. conference call – or else you're letting down the (privileged) young women of America!" Or: "Admit how brutally hard it is and how you are terrified and now realize you can't have it all – or else you're letting down the (privileged) young women of America!"

The tech world is treating Mayer's news as a major curiosity. A Tech Crunch headline screamed: "Marissa Mayer: The First Ever Pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 Tech Company?" in a tone it might use to announce she was the First Ever Bearded Lady CEO or some other freakish innovator. Forbes shouted: "Marissa Mayer's Pregnancy: What (If Anything) Does Yahoo Have to Disclose?" The piece took off from the controversy over how open Apple was about Steve Jobs' cancer, as though cancer were somehow comparable to the entirely routine condition of pregnancy. Blessedly, an attorney told Forbes: "If a CEO is seriously ill, I believe it should be disclosed. But less serious illnesses shouldn’t be. Hard part is determining what the threshold is. But a pregnancy is not the type of thing companies usually disclose nor, in my opinion, should they be required to do so."

Mayer, of course, is used to the scrutiny that comes being a woman in a male role. She is handling the public questions about her personal news with a bit of a practiced shrug. She told Fortune magazine, "I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it."

Almost predictably, the skeptical reactions are coming from women, not men. On the New York Times "Motherlode" blog, KJ Dell'Antonia raises an eyebrow at Mayer's reaction. "As an honest woman, I have to predict that the balancing of a new baby and such a high-profile job may be more challenging than Ms. Mayer’s blithe dismissal of the question suggests." Over on the HuffPost, Lisa Belkin hails Mayer's can-do approach but couldn't risk adding: "She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will."

As an honest woman, I've got to ask: Do these bright accomplished mommy-bloggers really think Mayer thinks it's going to be easy? She is minimizing the disruption a pregnancy and new baby presents because essentially that's her job. And it's her choice. Not everyone has to approach the birth of a child as a life-changing disruption. Barring health complications, Mayer is entitled to stay in her "rhythm" if she can.

I am prepared to admit that motherhood today is fraught ... with whatever any individual mother decides it's fraught with. Sure, plenty of women are upended by the experience of new motherhood – but plenty of women aren't. (Plenty of women can't afford to be, but that's a topic for another time. We need to concede that once we're in the realm of the Sandbergs and the Slaughters and the Mayers, we're not talking about the working-class mothers who take the early bus, in Jesse Jackson's memorable terms.) I think feminists assuming that motherhood is going to be tougher and more distracting for Mayer aren't helping change the terms of the debate for women leaders.

I'm not without my own projections and wishful thinking about Mayer, of course. I was a little saddened to hear an interview in which she distanced herself from feminism, an infinitely variegated movement that helped make her success possible. Mayer said:

I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I'd certainly believe in equal rights ... But I don't I think have sort of militant drive and the sort of chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. I think it's too bad but I do think feminism has become in many ways a more negative word ... There is more good that comes with positive energy, and not the negative energy.


So Slaughter blames feminism for not being honest with women – essentially, not negative enough – about the tradeoffs involved in trying to combine a high-powered career and family, while Mayer, who takes that right for granted, blames feminism for being too negative. Where is this feminist Borg they speak of? There are as many versions of feminism as there are women. Leave feminism alone!

I think Mayer is entitled to make motherhood as central or as secondary to her life as she wants. However she approaches it personally, though, I would hope that she would make it easier for women and men to combine work and family. We don't all want to be CEO; most people's goals include both career success and family happiness. I'm going to be more interested in what Marissa Mayer does to allow Yahoo employees to combine work and family than in how she combines hers.

By Joan Walsh

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