Yahoo CEO’s pregnancy begs old question

Why wouldn’t brilliant businesswoman be able to balance job with motherhood?

Marissa Mayer, formerly vice president of search products and user experience for Google, started as CEO at Yahoo Inc. on Tuesday, and the first big news she’s made: announcing that she’s six months pregnant. Enlarge photo

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press file photo

Marissa Mayer, formerly vice president of search products and user experience for Google, started as CEO at Yahoo Inc. on Tuesday, and the first big news she’s made: announcing that she’s six months pregnant.

NEW YORK – “Another piece of good news today,” tweeted the expectant mom, announcing to her online followers that she and her husband were awaiting a baby boy.

But this wasn’t just any excited mom-to-be. This was 37-year-old Marissa Mayer, the newly named CEO of Yahoo – obviously a huge achievement for anyone, but especially for a woman in the male-dominated tech industry. And she was about six months pregnant, to boot.

Exciting news – especially for Mayer and her husband, of course – but did it mean something for the rest of us, too? Was it a watershed moment in the perennial debate about whether women can “have it all,” with the pendulum swinging happily in the positive direction?

Or was it, as some claimed in the inevitable back-and-forth on Twitter, actually a development that would increase pressure on other working moms, who might not have nearly the resources that Mayer does, in terms of wealth, power, talent and flexibility on the job?

Or was it even sexist to raise the question at all? Would anyone be saying anything if the new Yahoo CEO were an expectant father? No, went a frequent online thread: No one would even pay attention to that.

What was clear was that Mayer’s situation as a pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company was not only rare, but probably unique. She becomes only the 20th current female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, according to Catalyst, an organization that tracks women in the workplace. Mayer herself, who left Google to take the new job, wasn’t speaking – tied up with her first-day responsibilities Tuesday at Yahoo, she declined interview requests, including one from The Associated Press. But on Monday, she told Fortune magazine that the Yahoo board “showed their evolved thinking” by hiring a pregnant chief executive, and that she planned to take only a few weeks maternity leave – during which she would work throughout.

“She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will,” wrote Lisa Belkin on her Huffington Post blog.

“Anyone can have it all,” said Julie Marrs, a sales administrator in Conroe, Texas, “but maybe not be as successful at everything as one hopes.” Marrs, a mother of two boys who works full-time, said she has learned the hard way that something always gets sacrificed.

“There are times that I am so mentally drained when I get home from work that I definitely do not spend the time I should with my kids,” she said in an email message. “Whether it be working on homework, reading books, playing a game or simply talking about their day. I try my best, but realize that to ‘have it all,’ something will be sacrificed. It could be takeout four nights during the week instead of a hot, home-cooked meal. Or it could be hearing your child read their first story book.”

While most online chatter about Mayer was full of praise for both her and Yahoo and sometimes saying “You can have it all,” there were those who said Mayer was perhaps not the best example to prove such a thesis.

One of them was Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose online lament last month on the The Atlantic’s website – “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” – unleashed a furious debate, showing that while the question might be a perennial one, it hasn’t lost any punch.

“Well, I think it’s fabulous news,” Slaughter said in a telephone interview of Mayer’s appointment, and her pregnancy. But, she suggested, Mayer’s situation – with her wealth, prominence and power – has little concrete relevance to the lives of ordinary women. (Mayer’s personal wealth has been estimated in the hundreds of millions, largely due to Google stock that she owns.)

“We all applaud her,” Slaughter said. “But she’s superhuman, rich, and in charge. She isn’t really a realistic role model for hundreds of thousands of women who are trying to figure out how you make it to the top AND have a family at the same time.”