The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
In five to 10 years, I want to look back and cite this week as the turning point in the discussion of women and careers, when pregnancy no longer constituted a liability.
This vision of the future comes in light of the news that Yahoo’s board of directors appointed Marissa Mayer — a 37-year old Google veteran who happens to be six-months pregnant — the company’s new CEO.
So much of this story appears to fly in the face of convention. In addition to being pregnant, she’s considered young for the posting and she’s attractive. San Francisco magazine once called her the “gorgeously geeky Googler.” Now, Ms. Mayer can add CEO of a Fortune 500 company to her growing list of accomplishments – likely the first one ever to be pregnant.
To me, this feels like a pivotal moment. Has the corporate world finally come to terms with what many women have been saying all along, that being productive, ambitious and fertile aren’t mutually exclusive?
Before getting too caught up in the visuals, there are many reasons why Yahoo’s board coveted Ms. Mayer. She boasts an outstanding career from the time she graduated from Stanford. She joined Google as their 20th employee and took
responsibility for many of their flagship services, including Google Maps, Google Earth and local search and amassed a $300 million fortune.
Ideally, Ms. Mayer will serve as a role model for other pregnant, senior executives eager to take on a new challenge. Women, and the business world need to see this as proof that pregnancy and promotions can go hand-in-hand.
“The real game-changer here is, as Mayer revealed, that none of the Yahoo directors, had any real concerns about hiring a pregnant CEO,” said Jo Miller, chief executive officer of Women’s Leadership Coaching, a San Jose, California-based company that works mainly in the high-tech sector. Ms. Mayer publicly commended Yahoo’s board for their “evolved thinking.”
Ms. Miller advises other pregnant, senior executives to tackle stereotypical assumptions head–on. If a pregnant woman wants to reach for that promotion, it’s unfortunately necessary for her to assertively counteract the perception that she’s planning to take a step-back career wise. For example, Ms. Mayer publicly stated that she only intends to take a few weeks off with her newborn and work throughout.
“My advice is to take control of the narrative,” suggested Ms. Miller. “Reveal the pregnancy sooner and at the same time, clearly communicate your preparedness and competence for the next role,” she added.
Before women in business everywhere launch into communal high-fives over this news, workplace discrimination continues to persist and deciding when to reveal the news can be fraught with anxiety.
A woman carries no legal obligation to disclose a pregnancy, whether or not she is up for a promotion or a new job, explained Robert Centa, a partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP, where he practices business litigation and public law, including executive employment. Yet keeping the news quiet for fear of a negative response remains an unsustainable solution.
“I believe that if you work for an employer that will discriminate against you because you are pregnant, then you probably also work for an employer who will engage in reprisals once they find out that you are and you didn’t tell them,” he observed.
Others also view Yahoo’s example as significant but not a sure fire sure fire sign of progress. “I wish one hire were a game-changer, but culture and the workplace move at a much slower pace. But for sure, such a high-profile example will go a long way in raising consciousness among employers and confidence among individual women,” explained Dr. Ann Daly, an Austin, Tex-based author and career coach devoted to the advancement of women.
Marlene Puffer, a mother of three and managing editor at BCA Research agrees. “It is hard to change the perceptions of those hiring managers who might assume that women’s attitude toward work will shift after they have children,” said Ms. Puffer, who previously worked at PIMCO Canada, Legg Mason Canada and RBC Capital Markets.
Ms. Puffer adds that women at senior levels likely have it easier since they can afford high quality childcare and often have greater access to flexible work arrangements. It’s a point that Ann-Marie Slaughter touched on in her now famous essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, published in the Atlantic magazine. Some women do manage to hit the career and family jackpot, but they are the outliers, and can’t be held up as role models.
In a tweet about Ms. Mayer, Ms. Slaughter noted, “Some women can, absolutely. & I applaud her! But she makes my point. She’s superhuman, rich, & in charge. Still need change!”
I believe Yahoo’s board signals that change is already afoot. Many women have a lot riding on Ms. Mayer’s success at Yahoo. Let’s pray she can pull this off.