Friday 20 July 2012

Having It All: The World According to Yahoo's Melissa Mayer

Much has already been written about Melissa Mayer's appointment as Yahoo CEO. Some commentators say her appointment in this position has taken women's progress in the tech sector to a new high. Others question the wisdom of putting a woman who is six months pregnant into the top job at a struggling company.

Indeed Yahoo's step is a bold one, as is Mayer's. While I would probably sell my firstborn for the cool $59 million Mayer is set to make, she is stepping into not only a pretty darn big job, but into the spotlight as the poster child of "the woman who has it all."

 Now, I don't even want to tackle the question of whether or not this decision is a wise choice - on her part or on the part of the struggling tech giant. Admittedly, I'm of two minds on the subject - on one hand, I think she's a significant role model out there for career women who want both family and a powerful job - a balance men have had for millennia. On the other hand, I worry about the wisdom of leaving a brand new baby, who ultimately, needs his mom. I also worry about the emotional life of a first-time mom who is not only trying to cope with sleep-deprivation and post-natal hormones, but the pressure of turning a company around.

 Not to mention the pressure of dealing with a rabid press, who, if she fails to make Yahoo the next Google in short order, will blame her family state - if only to smugly prove that "women can't have it all." The media is constantly looking for icons, and when they fail to live up to the pedestal they are put upon, few attacks are more vicious.

 Rather than get into the "should she, shouldn't she" debate, instead I think the fact that she's in this position is a fascinating statement. How far we've come since the Mad Men days, that a woman, especially one who is growing a new human, is considered strong and smart enough for a top job in an industry that is famously dominated by men. What a victory for women's equality, for the smashing of the glass ceiling. What a boon for Yahoo to be willing to consider a young woman, regardless of her gestational or gender or years-on-the-earth status, but based on her brilliance, her intelligence, her future-focus and her obvious merit in the role. It is particularly significant, given the American propensity for getting involved in public figures' bedrooms, to disregard her in-your-face fecundity. She is an inspiration to little girls who love math and science and technology and who dream of big careers.

 This is the good news to have come out of this announcement. But there is the bad news too. Mayer's willingness to take on this job while six months pregnant - announcing she will only take a brief maternity "leave" - (my holiday to Belize this fall will only be slightly shorter) sets a challenging precedent for other women who wish to be in her shoes. Is it really "having it all" if you can only be a full time mother (and brand new mother at that) for two weeks, before you're expected to be back on the job? Is it truly a victory for a woman to go from one of the most significant feminine experiences - giving birth - to being back in the office in the time of an average pay period? Is that really different from giving birth and being expected to be back working in the fields, as in the days of our ancestors? Have we really progressed that far?

 In truth, I think we have. I think it's significant that we're even having this conversation. But I do think Mayer's appointment, and her decision to truncate her maternity leave, sets a challenging precedent for other career women. I don't want to feel that, in order to succeed, I have to deny (or put on the shelf) the experience of being a mother, in order to succeed in the boardroom (as reality-fueled that may be). I want a mat leave - I cherish the idea of a mat leave, important time to bond with your new child, time to take on your new maternal identity. I can only imagine what's going on in the brains of other women who work at Yahoo - "Oh god. If I get pregnant, do I have to follow in Mayer's footprints in order to succeed at my job?"

|For me, at 35, I'm at that "do or die" place - have children now or forever hold my peace. I've been waiting for the right time - financial and relationship stability - and now that I have it, it still seems like the wrong time for my career. Now that I've built up the momentum for my career to take me to some interesting places, is now really the right time to pause for a baby?

 Mayer's example would suggest that you don't really need to pause. But I'm also of the belief that if you're going to have children, they are your responsibility to care for - not necessarily to throw into the waiting arms of a nanny, or grandparents or day care. While some kind of child care will always be an issue, I have no doubt, despite the willingness and nurturing ability of my spouse, I do want to be a primary influence in the life of my (yet-to-be) child.

 Which takes us back to that question. Can women really have it all? In Mayer's case, I guess we'll soon find out. In mine? I really have no idea.


  1. What I really hope is that Mayer has the guts to tell us the truth about what this experience is like. I know that giving birth is exhausting physically and emotionally and having a baby is like a bomb going off in your life. What you thought you wanted before baby may not be what you want after baby. If she has the guts to tell us what she really feels and thinks and doesn't try to gloss it over with the fairytale that having a baby and a career are easy-peasy, then maybe we have made progress. Otherwise, this just again sends the wrong idea that progress is made by valuing career over parenthood and not by finding a way for both parents to balance both more equitably.

    Parenthood is hard, but crazily worth it. You will find a way to balance both, I'm sure of it. But I really think that we owe it to ourselves to tell the truth about our experiences as mothers, good and bad. In other words, plan on writing a lot :-) It will make the world a better place!

  2. Define "all." As you know, W and I made the decision to not have kids. Do I feel like I don't have it all? Not a bit. I love my life and while I think I'd also be happy had things turned out differently, I'm pretty sure I've got "all" I need.

  3. I am very, very curious to see what she actually does when her baby is born. When you are pregnant with your first you have no idea of what is to come. It is not pausing. It is fast-forwarding. It is like a bomb going off in your house. So many women I know have wanted to stay home for a few years but went back to work to "have a break" from their children. So many others were certain they would go right back to work full time but just couldn't leave their children. I worked very hard to get my teaching tenure but gave it up because I couldn't bear to put my child in daycare. Every mother is different and no mother really knows what she will do until she actually has a baby. It is the hardest thing you will ever do but it is worth every single second. The rewards exceed your imagination.
    p.s. I just read Nancy's comment and laughed that she used the bomb-going-off image too!

  4. Thanks all. Interesting points. I can only imagine the bomb-going-off-ness of a new baby, and in Mayer's case, I hope she personally has the time and energy to "enjoy" some of it. From a corporate perspective, I can imagine how it may shape the culture of Yahoo, for the good. As Judith Timson asks in the Globe and Mail, why must babies and boardrooms be mutually exclusive? With so many working mothers in decision-making positions, is it necessary to be mommy-tracked - can we make room for babies/families in our work? Interesting thoughts:

    That said, I can't help but feel it's a bit naive to think she'll be back in work-mode in a couple of weeks. Even with all of the resources in the world - and all of the pressure in the world - it seems like a tall order. Of course, if that's what it takes to get a $59 million dollar job, I guess you don't say, "by the way, I'll be working from home for the next 6 months..." But I agree - I don't think you quite know what to expect until you're in the moment.

    I hope things go well for her. I agree, Nancy, I hope she's vocal about her experience. But I suspect unfortunately we won't hear a peep about it from her...

    As for "having it all..." - that phrase implies we still have Disneyfied versions of what our lives are supposed to entail, don't we? I think it's a way better idea to be clear about what you want, and to make sure your life follows those needs/wants, rather than feeling pressure to conform to some kind of sitcom life plan. Good for you, Nikki, for being clear and honest about that. No wonder you have what you need!

  5. Very interesting and thoughtful post. I guess what really gets me about all the media commentary on Melissa Mayer is that people feel entitled to an opinion on her life decisions. This isn't at all intended as a critique of your post, but I find that when it comes to 'career women's' life choices, our reaction as a society is to opine over whether or not she's making the 'right' personal choices or not. I have a hard time imagining anybody making such commentary on a man's choices. These days if a man decides to become a stay-at-home dad, he's lionized for it. Ditto if he cruises along with his career.

    As for the whole kid-no kid thing, A and I are at the same point as you age-wise and at that point-of-no-return. And I've long sat on the fence on the issue, but when it comes down to it I take the view that I'm not the one who would have to physically carry the child for nine months and give birth, and so therefore am less entitled to an opinion on that matter. And with my wife's musical career starting to pick up steam, things are definitely leaning towards the no-kid path. And that's cool.

    As a society, we still make it our business what our women-folk decide to do with their lives. And until we stop doing that, we're still going to have a patriarchy.