Can Marissa Mayer have it all?
Yahoo’s newly annointed CEO, 37, who is expecting her first child in October, personifies the high-wire, work-family balancing act that continues to confront women, a dilemma recently back on the national stage with the Atlantic magazine’s provocative cover story: "Why women still can’t have it all."
"I applaud her! But she makes my point," Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the article’s author, tweeted about Mayer. "She’s superhuman, rich and in charge."
Mayer’s surprise appointment as CEO of the troubled Internet giant was widely hailed when it was announced last week, with most tech insiders praising her as the brains behind some of Google’s best products. But her later disclosure that she was six months pregnant was equally surprising to many, given the difficulties she is sure to face in the boardroom. Some wondered how she would juggle the responsibilities that come with both her new jobs.
Others, though, questioned whether Mayer’s pregnancy — which in few short hours had been parsed, blogged and dissected from the Internet to the airwaves — was anyone’s business but hers and her husband’s.
"I’m mortified at the attention it’s getting," said Wade Randlett, a Democratic activist and entrepreneur. "It’s really socially retro. Would Yahoo rather have a 55-year-old MBA tool or Marissa Mayer? Getting her is the coup of the year — or maybe the decade, given what kind of shape Yahoo is in."
But shareholder advocates said Mayer’s pregnancy is relevant, given the time needed to lead a company as big and complex as Yahoo.
"Once you become the CEO of a public company you relinquish the right to privacy when it comes to health issues," said Nell Minow, co-owner and board member of GMI Ratings, an independent research firm specializing in corporate governance. "The board of directors has got to make sure she keeps them informed of any issue that could affect her ability to do the job."
Although potential employers cannot discriminate against pregnant candidates, Mayer disclosed her condition to the Yahoo board in June during the interview process. "They showed their evolved thinking" by not batting an eye, she told Fortune magazine.
"I applaud the Yahoo board for not letting that be an issue," venture capitalist Heidi Roizen wrote in an e-mail. "I delivered two children while I was CEO of T/Maker, albeit a vastly smaller company than Yahoo, but many of the challenges CEOs face are similar regardless of the size of the company."
Yahoo’s shareholders, furious that the stock has lost half its value in the past four years, seem bullish on Mayer, at least for the time being. Activist investor Dan Loeb, whose almost 6 percent stake in Yahoo gave him the clout to oust previous CEO Scott Thompson over his fudged resume — and snagged Loeb a seat on the board in May — simply wrote "!!!!" on a Facebook post linking to a story about Mayer’s new gig. But it was widely reported that Loeb championed the superstar ex-Googler as someone who could swoop in and overhaul Yahoo, which desperately needs help.
Experts said taking some time off early in a job tenure shouldn’t put the kibosh on a candidate. "It’s not really relevant in the long term," said Susan Magley, president of search firm Magley & Associates.
"I see it as a nonissue," agreed Cindy Burns, national director of the National Association of Professional Women.
For that matter, while Mayer may not maintain her typical 90-hour workweek when her son is born in early October, she’s likely to stay closely tied to the executive suite.
"My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work through it," she told Fortune.
As the fifth person to lead Yahoo in the past year, Mayer is clearly taking on a daunting job. That’s led some to raise the theory of "the glass cliff" -- the idea that struggling companies sometimes pick women for leadership roles when the odds are stacked against them, increasing the chances that they’ll fall short.
For many observers, the most socially relevant point about Mayer is that she’s joining such a small club. There’s only one other female CEO in Silicon Valley — Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman. Including Yahoo, only 20 Fortune 500 companies are led by women.
"With 96 percent of (CEO) positions still held by men, we look to additional progress in tapping talented women for top leadership and hope that, soon, there will no longer be a need to count them," Ilene Lang, CEO of Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women’s professional opportunities, said in a statement.
Mayer’s youth and engineering chops make her a role model, observers said.
"She and (Facebook COO) Sheryl Sandberg will be twin towers for hopefully quite some time," Randlett said. "I have three daughters and I want them to believe they can have a great family, a great career, go into math, science, hold elected office or study art history. This is great for every parent with young daughters who wants that reinforcement of a great example you can point to."
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