Yahoo CEO's pregnancy reignites a perennial debate

Google Inc. Vice President Marissa Mayer speaks to foreign and local media during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, June 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
July 17, 2012 5:27:47 PM PDT
"Another piece of good news today," tweeted the expectant mom, announcing to her online followers that she and her husband are awaiting a baby boy.

But this wasn't just any excited mom-to-be. This was 37-year-old Marissa Mayer, the newly named CEO of Yahoo - obviously a huge achievement for anyone, but especially for a woman in the male-dominated tech industry. And she was about six months pregnant, to boot.

Exciting news - especially for Mayer and her husband, of course - but did it mean something for the rest of us, too? Was it a watershed moment in the perennial debate over whether women can "have it all," with the pendulum swinging happily in the positive direction?

Or was it, as some claimed in the inevitable back-and-forth on Twitter, actually a development that would increase pressure on other working moms, who might not have nearly the resources that Mayer does, in terms of wealth, power, talent and flexibility on the job?

Or was it even sexist to raise the question at all? Would anyone be saying anything if the new Yahoo CEO were an expectant father? No, went a frequent online thread: No one would even pay attention to that.

What was clear was that Mayer's situation as a pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company is not only rare, but probably unique. She becomes only the 20th current female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, according to Catalyst, an organization that tracks women's advancement in the workplace. If it sounds like a lot, it's not; that's only four percent of Fortune 500 chiefs.

There is little or no research tracking whether any have been pregnant while in that job, but a look at the other current female Fortune 500 CEOs shows that the vast majority are well into their 50s, and thus presumably well out of maternity-leave territory.

Mayer, who left Google to take the new job, wasn't speaking - tied up with her first-day responsibilities Tuesday at Yahoo, she declined interview requests, including one from The Associated Press. But on Monday, she told Fortune magazine that the Yahoo board "showed their evolved thinking" by hiring a pregnant chief executive, and that she plans to take only a few weeks maternity leave - during which she would work throughout.

That raised a few eyebrows among some who suspected it might not be as easy as the first-time mom thinks.

"She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will," wrote Lisa Belkin on her Huffington Post blog.

Many speculated that, like other working moms, Mayer would find her attentions and energies divided well beyond maternity leave.

"Anyone can have it all," said Julie Marrs, a sales administrator in Conroe, Texas, "but maybe not be as successful at everything as one hopes." Marrs, a mother of two boys who works full-time, said she has learned the hard way that something always gets sacrificed.

"There are times that I am so mentally drained when I get home from work that I definitely do not spend the time I should with my kids," she said in an email message. "Whether it be working on homework, reading books, playing a game or simply talking about their day. I try my best, but realize that to 'have it all,' something will be sacrificed. It could be takeout four nights during the week instead of a hot, home-cooked meal. Or it could be hearing your child read their first story book."

While most online chatter about Mayer was full of praise for both her and Yahoo and sometimes saying "You CAN have it all!," there were those who said Mayer was perhaps not the best example to prove such a thesis.

One of them was Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose online lament last month on The Atlantic's website - "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" - unleashed a furious debate, showing that while the question might be a perennial one, it hasn't lost any punch.

"Well, I think it's fabulous news," Slaughter said of Mayer's appointment and pregnancy in a telephone interview. But, she suggested, Mayer's situation - with her wealth, prominence and power - has little concrete relevance to the lives of ordinary women. (Mayer's personal wealth has been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, largely due to Google stock that she owns.)

"We all applaud her," Slaughter said. "But she's superhuman, rich, and in charge. She isn't really a realistic role model for hundreds of thousands of women who are trying to figure out how you make it to the top AND have a family at the same time."

She also noted that Mayer had arrived at her position of prominence by following the route many working women in Slaughter's generation - she is 53 - had followed, including Slaughter herself: waiting until after 35 to have a child, so as to first establish yourself professionally.

"It's a risky route, because of that biological clock," she noted.

While many applauded Mayer's achievement, a few were disappointed that the big news of her pregnancy was, well, big news.

"It is great that Marissa Mayer is pregnant," tweeted writer Rebecca Traister. "But the intensity of reaction is slightly depressing. Kind of as if they'd hired a yeti."

Catalyst, the organization that tracks women in the workplace, also noted that it hopes one day, "there will no longer be a need to count" the women CEOs in the Fortune 500. Others called Mayer a role model, but then said they wish that she didn't have to be.

Jen Singer, a mommy blogger based in New Jersey, had another concern. Mayer, she said, was certainly going to have more flexibility, being at the top. But, she added, "She also has more responsibility."

"When most women announce their pregnancies, it doesn't affect the value of the company's stock. Just like Steve Jobs for a time insisted his health was fine to protect Apple, Mayer must look like she can have the baby and handle the company at the same time.

"I just hope she doesn't screw it up for the rest of us," Singer said. "Because whether she likes it or not, she is now the poster child for working mothers."

Yahoo turns to former nemesis to be its CEO savior

As a top executive at Google for the past 13 years, Marissa Mayer played an instrumental role in developing many of the services that have tormented Yahoo as its appeal waned among Web surfers, advertisers and investors.

Now, Yahoo is turning to its longtime nemesis to fix everything that has gone wrong while Google Inc. has been cementing its position as the Internet's most powerful company.

Mayer, 37, will tackle the imposing challenge Tuesday when she takes over as Yahoo's fifth CEO in the past five years.

The surprise hiring announced late Monday indicates Yahoo still believes it can be an Internet innovator instead of merely an online way station where people pass through to read a news story or watch a video clip before moving on to more compelling Internet destinations.

"I just saw a huge opportunity to have a global impact on users and really help the company in terms of managing its portfolio, attracting great talent and really inspiring and delighting people," Mayer said during a Monday interview with The Associated Press.

Like her predecessors, Mayer will have to come up with an effective strategy to compete with the juggernaut that Google has become and the increasingly influential force that Facebook Inc. is turning into as more people immerse themselves in its social network.

Both Google, the Internet's search leader, and Facebook have been beating Yahoo Inc. in the battle for Web surfers' attention and advertisers' marketing budgets. As Yahoo has lagged in that pivotal race, so has its financial performance and stock price. The stock has been slumping since Yahoo Inc. balked at a chance to sell itself to Microsoft Corp. for $47.5 billion, or $33 per share, in May 2008.

Yahoo shares haven't traded above $20 since September 2008. The announcement came after the market closed Monday. On Tuesday, Yahoo shares slid 5 cents to close at $15.60.

"If she can pull this off and turn around Yahoo, it will make her legacy," Gartner Inc. analyst Allen Weiner said of Mayer. "Yahoo's iconic yodel has been missing for a long time. Her mission will be to bring that yodel back."

This will be the first time that Mayer has run a company as she steps out of the long shadow cast by the Google's ruling triumvirate - co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Although she had her responsibilities at Google narrowed two years ago, Mayer is still widely considered to among the Internet industry's brightest executives. A Wisconsin native, Mayer is a mathematics whiz with a sponge-like memory and a keen eye for design.

Mayer joined Google in 1999 as its 20th employee and went on to play an integral role in helping Page and Brin exploit their online search technology to outmaneuver Yahoo at a time when it was still the larger of the two companies. Now, it takes Google a little more than a month to generate as much revenue as Yahoo does in an entire year.

During Google's rise, Mayer helped oversee the development and design of the company's popular email, online mapping and news services. She also became a topic of Silicon Valley gossip during Google's early years while she dated Page for three years. They have since gotten married to other people.

"We will miss her talents," Page, now Google's CEO, said in a statement.

In another statement, Schmidt hailed Mayer as "a great product person, very innovative and a real perfectionist who always wants the best for users. Yahoo has made a great choice."

Mayer becomes one of the most prominent women executives in Silicon Valley, a place whose geeky culture has been dominated by men for decades. This is Yahoo's second female CEO, though. Silicon Valley veteran Carol Bartz, 63, spent more than two-and-half years as Yahoo's CEO before she was fired last September.

Within a few months, Mayer expects to be on a maternity leave. In another interview late Monday, Mayer revealed to Fortune magazine that she is pregnant with a boy. Her due date is Oct. 7. She said she had informed Yahoo's board about her pregnancy before the 11 directors unanimously voted to hire her.

Other prominent female executives in Silicon Valley include Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Meg Whitman and another former top Google executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who defected to a rival when she joined Facebook as that company's chief operating officer in 2008. Other female CEOs running major technology companies include IBM Corp.'s Virginia "Ginni" Rometty and Xerox Corp.'s Ursula Burns.

Yahoo picked Mayer over an internal candidate, Ross Levinsohn, who had been widely considered to be the front-runner for the job after stepping in to fill a void created two months ago when the company dumped Scott Thompson as CEO amid a flap over misinformation on his official biography.

Thompson's bio inaccurately said he had college degree in computer science - an accomplishment that Mayer can rightfully list on her resume. She earned a master's in computer science at Stanford University, the same school where the co-founders from both Google and Yahoo honed their engineering skills.

This marks the second time that Yahoo has snubbed Levinsohn, 48, who previously had been best known for overseeing the Internet operations for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Levinsohn had been vying for the CEO job after Bartz's firing, only to be passed over when Yahoo lured Thompson away from eBay Inc.

Mayer told the AP that she wasn't looking to leave Google Inc. when Yahoo first contacted her June 18 about the job.

Her hiring threatens to alienate Levinsohn at a time when he has been steering Yahoo's recent emphasis on producing more original content and highlighting material provided by other media outlets in an effort to persuade its website's 700 million monthly visitors to stick around longer. Recent partnerships include those with ABC News and the financial news channel CNBC.

"Marissa's first order of business should be convincing Levinsohn to stay," Gartner's Weiner said. "If he leaves, there will be an exodus" among the Yahoo employees working on the content for the company's website.

Mayer declined to comment on any discussions she might have planned with Levinsohn.

Even if Levinsohn and his allies leave, Yahoo should still benefit from the connections and reputation that Mayer built during her years at Google, predicted J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth.

Mayer may "be able to attract more high quality engineering talent to Yahoo, which we think is needed after several years of strategic and leadership flux," Anmuth wrote in a research note late Monday. Yahoo decided to lay off about 2,000 employees, or about 14 percent of its workforce, in April while Thompson was still CEO.

Anmuth also expects Mayer to bring in new managers as she shapes her team. Mayer will be greeted by at least one familiar face on Yahoo's senior management team. While serving as Yahoo's interim CEO, Levinsohn last month lured away another Google executive, Michael Barrett, to be Yahoo's chief revenue officer.

The terms of Mayer's contract have not been spelled out yet. Mayer is already wealthy from stock options that she got before Google went public in 2004.

Yahoo reported its second-quarter earnings Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours after Mayer reported to work. The numbers showed Yahoo's revenue growth remains sluggish even though advertisers have been spending more money on the Internet.

Mayer skipped Yahoo's Tuesday afternoon conference call to discuss the results with stock market analysts so she can start to get a better grasp on the task ahead of her. She already has canceled vacation plans for next month.

"For me work is fun, and fun is work," Mayer said. "I am very excited about the big challenges here, and I can't wait to work on them. It's going to be very, very energizing."


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