Wow. That was fast.
We heard the first Marissa Mayer “joke” less than 24 hours after she’d been appointed CEO of Yahoo, and had also announced she was pregnant with her first child.
Yahoo’s earnings announcement was to coincide with Mayer’s first day on the job. She wasn’t going to be on the earnings call with financial analysts, the company said, because she needed time to get up to speed on the business. Fair enough. But when a young CEO of a Silicon Valley startup heard she was skipping the call, this was his response: "Oh, it must be ultrasound day."
This is what we’re up against.
For a few hours, Mayer was the new CEO of Yahoo. She was the high-level, high-profile, ridiculously accomplished Google engineer who suddenly became one of the few women to lead a Fortune 500 company.
No one saw Mayer’s appointment as CEO coming, but no one could deny that there is a certain logic to it, either. Mayer has engineering cred, with a B.S. and an M.S. from Stanford University, important assets at degree-conscious Google. She was employee No. 20 there, and ran their search business, giving her hands-on experience with a giant Internet company. She is a media darling, well-known in tech and society circles. And at 37, she is young, which gets her a nod as being clued into the cutting edge of technology in youth-obsessed Silicon Valley.
Then Mayer tweeted she was pregnant. And in about two seconds, she became That Pregnant Lady. The headlines now call her “Yahoo’s pregnant CEO,” “the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” and the “highest-profile pregnant CEO.”
All of a sudden, few seemed to care about Marissa Mayer, the engineer, or Marissa Mayer, the executive. Instead, she became notable for expecting her first child in October (it’s a boy) and for her plan to take just two weeks maternity leave and work through it as best she can.
Once Mayer became That Pregnant Lady, she somehow stopped being Marissa Mayer, the person. Collectively, we seem to have forgotten how brilliant she is. Instead, we’ve got pundits giving her parenting advice. As if she needs it, and as if, in any event, it would actually work.
It’s a shame, because this conversation about parenting and maternity leave is a lot less interesting and relevant than the one about Marissa Mayer the executive. We want to hear about how she ran Google’s search division, worked on the development of Gmail and led the mobile group, and about how that experience might inform her decisions at Yahoo. Her maternity leave is (and should be) irrelevant to us and to most other professional women. But some smart management insights from a brilliant woman working in a male-dominated field? We’ll take those any day.
And frankly, we need them. We need Mayer to remind the world that pregnant women are not caricatures. That thousands of pregnant women hold important positions in businesses, and they go to work every day, with a baby on board, and make decisions that are crucial to the success of their companies and their teams. And none of them have a $70 million pay package to hire nannies, housecleaners, cooks, chefs, accountants and lawyers, and the huge staff available to a big-company CEO.
Mayer has thousands of people depending on her for their livelihood, and she knows it. She didn’t take the job for money — Google made her a millionaire. She took the job knowing that Yahoo is a company in trouble and that they are counting on her to make it a success.
In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that the rudest question you can ask a woman is not “How old are you?” or “What do you weigh?” Fey, the mother of a young daughter and the star and creator of the award-wining sitcom 30 Rock, says, “No, the worst question is ‘How you do juggle it all?”
“How do you juggle it all?” people constantly ask me, with an accusatory look in their eyes. “You’re fucking it all up, aren’t you?” their eyes say. My standard answer is that I have the same struggles as any working parent but with the good fortune to be working at my dream job...
"I always fantasize about quitting my job. 'We don’t need a lot of money!' I tell myself. 'We don’t live extravagantly; we just live in an expensive city. If we moved to a little house in Pennsylvania we could live like kings for much less! And we’ll all be together all day and we’ll make cupcakes and plant a garden! And I would be taller! Yes, somehow I would be taller.'
"My reverie is inevitably interrupted by someone who needs me to get back to work. There are almost two hundred people who work on this TV show with me. A lot of them have kids that they miss all day just like me; they keep the same terrible hours as I do; but unlike me, they are not working at their dream job. They need this job to pay their bills, and if I flaked out and quit, their jobs would disappear."
Of course, we wish Mayer well with her pregnancy. As parents, we can understand some of the wonder of what she’s going through, and of what’s going to happen next. But what we really want her to do is show she can turn Yahoo around — especially since the last five CEOs couldn’t. Because while That Pregnant Lady may be a cultural construction we can't escape, we are already starting to miss Marissa Mayer. The person. — KW and CG