Is pregnant Yahoo CEO a landmark?

Marissa Mayer in 2011

The news that Marissa Mayer, the new chief executive of Yahoo, was appointed while six months pregnant has prompted a flurry of reaction. But how significant is the appointment for other women?

Within minutes of Marissa Mayer's move from Google to Yahoo - and her pregnancy - being announced, there was a wave of approval.

"CEO and pregnant announcements in one day? @marissamayer isn't just breaking the glass ceiling; she's annihilating it," tweeted marketing consultant Lauren Hall-Stigerts.

"This is actually really, really important: Yahoo board knew Marissa Mayer is pregnant, hired her as CEO anyway," was the verdict of Eric Nelson, the executive editor at John Wiley and Sons.

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer in 2011 at TechCrunch
  • New CEO of Yahoo
  • Joined Google in 1999 as employee number 20 - and its first female engineer
  • Most recently in charge of Local, Maps and Location Services at Google
  • Worked on homepage, Street View and Gmail
  • On boards of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Ballet and NYC Ballet
  • Studied computer science, specialising in artificial intelligence, at Stanford University
  • Worked as grocery clerk in high school
  • Aged 37, married to entrepreneur Zachary Bogue, first child due in October

Meanwhile Marie Claire's mum-to-be Emma Simkins penned why a pregnant CEO is great news for women.

However it didn't take long for other commentators to seem slightly alarmed at how much prominence the pregnancy was getting.

"It is great that Marissa Mayer is pregnant. But intensity of reaction is slightly depressing. Kind of as if they'd hired a yeti," tweeted Rebecca Traister, a New York Times journalist and author of Big Girls Don't Cry.

So how significant is Mayer's posting, and what might it mean for other women?

It's difficult to say for sure, but none of those writing about Mayer seem able to recall a single other example of a major company recruiting a six months pregnant woman for the top job.

TechCrunch says Mayer may well be "the first ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 tech company" and calls the announcement "trailblazing".

But the Guardian's US newsblog points out Mayer is not the first female chief executive with a family, though it says "the number is depressingly low".

Even so, Dr Fiona Moore, a senior lecturer in human resource management at Royal Holloway, University of London, says Yahoo's move is to be celebrated.

"We're gradually getting towards the realisation that pregnancy and motherhood does not render women unable to do business," she says.

Of course there may be a number of factors that make Mayer's situation unique - her experience at Google and her plans to take just "a few weeks" of maternity leave. She says she wants to "work throughout".

Start Quote

As a rough rule of thumb, you have to be at a company before you are pregnant to get rights”

End Quote Samantha Mangwana Employment lawyer

It can be difficult to change jobs during a pregnancy. So could Mayer's high profile help more women make a similar move?

Employment lawyer Samantha Mangwana, a partner at Russell Jones & Walker, points out that in the UK it is completely unlawful to discriminate against a job applicant - both in terms of the job, or the decision to appoint someone - because of pregnancy or maternity leave.

But she says it is often hard to prove why people don't get a job. The difficulty of getting a job while pregnant is recognised by employment tribunals. It helps explain the size of rewards for pregnant women who win unfair dismissal cases.

Mangwana thinks Mayer has "a lot more bargaining power" than most women.

"It just takes a quick look at her CV to see why she was snapped up like gold dust. She was part of a team that turned Google from a start-up into a multi-billion dollar organisation," she says.

Few women are in Mayer's position.

Pregnant woman in an office

"Qualifying for statutory maternity pay, or meeting the conditions for their company's enhanced maternity pay may be the main issue for many people. For senior executives like Mayer, the proposed level of earnings by ordinary or performance-related pay may outweigh those considerations. But for others, it makes a difference," she says.

Pregnant employees may feel deterred from making a move because a period of service is required before becoming eligible for maternity pay, she says.

"As a rough rule of thumb, you have to be at a company before you are pregnant to receive statutory maternity pay, but a longer period of service may be required to receive enhanced pay above this level. Often companies have benefit schemes which reward loyalty, so it may make sense to stay put."

Others agree Mayer is in an unusual situation.

"Some women can [have it all], absolutely. & I applaud her! but she makes my point. She's superhuman, rich, & in charge. Still need change!" tweeted Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the US State Department.

While the Wall Street Journal's Janet Paskin thinks Mayer has "ratcheted up the stakes" for working mothers everywhere.

Previously in the Magazine

Screenshot of Magazine article

"I hope her delivery is free of complications and her baby is healthy. I hope if Mayer chooses to breastfeed, that all goes smoothly, that her son latches and her supply is plentiful. I hope he's not colicky. I hope he sleeps well," she says.

And Slate's Jessica Grose worries that if Mayer does go quickly back to work, "employers will be even less accommodating to women who need (or want) more than a few weeks, and can't - or don't want to - work immediately after giving birth".

However, Moore argues Mayer has done more good for working women than harm.

"I've seen lots of anecdotal evidence that women are actively strategising their career in regards to family planning.

"Many women think 'If I get pregnant, I might not get the job. If I take a long maternity leave, they might not want me to come back. It's not true, but there is a lot of concern that women may be seen as less valuable to an organisation if they work flexibly or take a break," she says.

A high-profile case such as Mayer will "normalise" the idea that pregnant women can get jobs. "If women are thinking of going for a change of career, they might now think 'I can do this'," she says.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    And Yahoo wonders why its in a mess!! (On its third CEO in no time.) Good luck to Ms Mayer and all who sail in her but do the sisterhood REALLY believe she can give full attention to the job for the next 12 months? (pre & post foaling)
    I don't believe she can - indeed she is a more rounded person if she cant.
    Most important lesson from this? Sell Yahoo!

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Lucidity I'm not aware of anyone abandoning their child before it is born in this scenario and neither are you. Millions of women work and have children. In fact you could well argue that all women who have children are also engaging in work / activities other than the raising of their children (just not always paid employment)

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Who gives a flying fish whether she's pregnant or not? If she was/is the right woman for the job, whether she's pregnant should never come into it. End of discussion.
    (And I AM a bloke, by the way)

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    The fact that she is very very rich is (obviously) going to be a big help.

    She, no doubt, already has a full quota of cleaners, gardeners, chefs, and chauffeurs, so she'll just hire extra help for the child.

    Could she run a major company and raise a family (and make a success of both) without help? Unlikely

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    At the end of the day people are trying to run a business here! It's business sense not to employ women who is pregnant and will leave for 9/12 months on full pay! The the business has to employ someone else to cover! If women want to start a family then of course they can but they shouldn't get upset when they don't get the job! There could be a case where women should be unpaid when pregnant!


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