New Debate Ignites on Maternity, Motherhood, and Executive Women

Hispanic Woman Working In Home OfficeBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“Mayer’s appointment contradicts the common wisdom that maternity and motherhood are incompatible with top executive positions. It may increase the willingness of organizations to consider pregnant women for top positions. It may also increase the aspirations of executive women. They may see that it is possible to combine maternity and motherhood with a position at the top.”

– Laura Graves, Associate Professor of Management, Graduate School of Management, Clark University

When Marissa Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo last week, many wished to be able to simply cheer the arrival of the newest member to join the small group of women CEOs in the Fortune 500. But celebration over Mayer’s appointment to become one of only a handful of women to hold the top spot in a major U.S. company was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that she is also seven months pregnant—and that she plans to largely work through her maternity leave.

The multi-layered news struck different chords with thought leaders throughout the tech industry, as well as the larger business community. To explore the full range of issues and implications for other executive women, we spoke with a wide range of industry experts and academics about their thoughts on Mayer’s groundbreaking career moves.

Misdirected Focus

Pregnancy and maternity-leave issues have hijacked the conversation, say many with whom we spoke. As a result, instead of attention being focused on Mayer’s selection as chief executive and the business challenges that she faces at Yahoo, media has zeroed in on her personal life and choices—as often happens specifically with high-profile women. The focus has become the fact that she’s the first Fortune 500 CEO to be appointed while pregnant, rather than that she’s only the 20th woman to be named chief executive of a major U.S. organization.

“The scrutiny Mayer is getting—not for her selection as CEO of Yahoo but for her comment about working through maternity leave—is that despite all the changes in society, we haven’t given up traditional gender roles and women are still assumed to be the main caretakers of children,” says Laura Graves, associate professor of management in the Graduate School of Management at Clark University. “We should all be congratulating Mayer on her new role and accomplishments and her pregnancy, not judging her,” says Debby Carreau, CEO of Inspired HR.

“Mayer is faced with the challenge of turning around an organization that is in financial turmoil,” says Jamie Ladge, assistant professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University’s College of Business. “The focus by the media and her critics should be on whether and how she will do this using her current background and skill set, and not on her personal situation.”

Ladge notes that we don’t focus on the personal when men take the helm, and suggests that in order to break down gender role assumptions, we should stop doing this when women take the helm. “If she fails, it’s not going to be because she had a baby, it’s going to be for other reasons beyond her personal circumstances,” says Ladge.

“Mayer has made it to the very top of the technology field,” says Betsy Myers, founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. “She was tapped to become the CEO of Yahoo because of her history of success at Google. She is a highly regarded product development expert, and this was exactly the skill set that the Yahoo board was looking for.”

Myers says that she feels confident that a top performer like Mayer can figure out how to work with her husband, family, and colleagues at Yahoo to create a maternity leave work plan that allows her to stay in touch with the office while she spends time with her new baby. “Technology will allow her to conduct conference calls from her nursing glider, if that’s what she feels she needs to do,” says Myers.

When it comes to focusing on personal issues, while the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, childbirth, and first-time motherhood are inarguably challenging and distracting, some suggest that many other events throughout people’s lives are equally so.

“I do wonder why we appear to discount other personal events in the lives of both men and women, such as impending surgeries, the need to manage a family of five, the need to deal with aging parents struggling with early signs of dementia, the tragic death (as opposed to a birth) of a child,” says Joseph M. Pastore, Jr., professor emeritus in residence at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “Somehow, the arrival of a newborn is seen as more demanding than the need, for both men and women, to tend, for example, to the lives of four adolescents.”

And when discussing misdirected focus, another issue was raised as well—whether what’s true for Mayer, whose wealth and power bestow on her a near-celebrity status, will hold true for other women in the workplace—either senior-level executives or those lower on the ladder. “Ironically, the concern here may very well not be so much for whether pregnancy affects the ability of a CEO to do her job,” says Pastore. “It may more likely be whether pregnancy affects the ability of a staff person in the CEO’s office to do her job.”

Allison O’Kelly, CEO of flexible staffing firm Mom Corps, takes a similar position. “This isn’t the normal work situation of the majority of women in America—even most higher-level executives,” says O’Kelly. “So besides the media hype, this won’t change a lot in the day to day, short term.”

Increased Expectations?

Because of her high profile, all eyes will be on Mayer’s choices, both professional and personal. When it comes to the issue of high-level pregnant executives and “working maternity leaves” (defined as continuing to work outside the home as well as in it during leave), some believe that Mayer’s plans will pave the way for other executives to have an easier time in these arenas. “Mayer’s decision is a pioneering move, and one that will no doubt encourage executive women to follow in her footsteps,” says Jessica Stackpoole, CEO of EventPro Strategies.

“Mayer’s decision to take a top position while pregnant demonstrates to Corporate America, both men and women, that pregnancy does not have to carry a career-limiting stigma,” says Rachel Smith, employment attorney and partner in the Houston office of a national law firm. In fact, Smith feels personally inspired by the news as she prepares to welcome her second daughter this fall.

Smith recalls disclosing her first pregnancy to colleagues four years ago, feeling almost apologetic in delivering the news and personally compelled to assure colleagues that she’d return after her leave just as committed to her career as she had been before pregnancy or motherhood. “Mayer’s new role, as the pregnant CEO of a major American corporation, demonstrates that we can unabashedly celebrate rather than apologize for our roles and the work we do as mothers, while continuing to make an impact in business,” says Smith.

But others believe Mayer’s choices may inadvertently introduce some additional obstacles onto other women’s paths. Kara Nortman has strong views on the topic—in fact, she’s blogged about it herself. (See “New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Needs to Take a Real, 12-Week Maternity Leave” in Business Insider.)

Nortman, who is senior vice president of Consumer Businesses at CityGrid Media, believes that while maternity leave is a personal choice for every woman, Mayer is in a powerful position as a role model for all executive women, whether she likes it or not. “Her words and actions can be leveraged to support other women in the workforce,” Nortman told us. “The last thing we want to do is set the precedent in Corporate America that maternity leave is not important or necessary.”

Graves agrees that Mayer’s example may unintentionally set a problematic precedent. “There is some danger that Mayer’s example of working through her maternity leave will create an unreasonable expectation that all women should work during such leaves,” says Graves. “It should be a matter of choice.”

On balance, Angie Strunk, VP of operations for Sheakley HR notes that with the technology advancements today, working remotely and flexibly have become more viable options, making the possibility of working during extended leave periods potentially easier than it used to be. “As long as the policies are clearly laid out and followed both according to law and to the understanding of the employee, situations like Mayer’s are a matter of personal preference.”

“Even ten years ago, the idea that you might juggle the responsibilities of being a CEO and give birth and raise a newborn baby while the entire world watches your performance would have been almost laughable,” adds Sara Fell, CEO of FlexJobs. “But with the huge advances we’ve seen in workplace flexibility, it’s now more possible than ever.”

2 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Cynthia Baum

    It’s nice to see some [Debby Carreau] have some integrity and make such a supportive statement, “…not judging her”

    Some of our societal tendency’s are ridiculously outdated so thank you Robin for the article and Debby as well.


  2. Avatar

    To bring my thought above full circle–while Ms. Mayer’s situation is not the norm, and will not bring about the full scale change we need, I am confident that as more women execs reach the top, we will begin to see a trickle down effect of more understanding for working parents in the way of work/life initiatives in all organizations and industries.–Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps