Mayer’s decision to work through maternity leave renews talk of work-life balance

There’s been a lot — a lot — of discussion today about Marissa Mayer, and much of it has been about the revelation that she’s just been named to be Yahoo’s chief executive and that she’s six months pregnant.

But there’s also been an interesting debate brewing around the fact that she’s all but said she’ll take no maternity leave at all. Or, to be exact, she told Fortune, “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”

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Mayer is a known workaholic, but that statement hit home for working women across industries, including Kristie Lu Stout of CNN International. Lu Stout penned a quick open letter to Mayer, saying that the new Yahoo exec should absolutely take some time to spend with her son when he is born in October.

“Like other working moms, I kind of wish you didn't say that ... but I can see why you did,” Lu Stout wrote. “You want to prove yourself. You want to hit the ground running and keep up the sprint even through the so-called fourth trimester. But maternity leave is not a vacation or a cop-out from your new post. It's the first precious weeks to invest in a being who is completely dependent on you.”

The discussion over Mayer’s decision to say she’ll work through the leave that most mothers — and many fathers — have open to them following the birth of a child is one that resonates with many women who struggle with the balance between their work and the rest of their lives.

Of course, the nation just renewed its conversation about a more general work-life balance following Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story,which proclaimed that women simply can’t “have it all,” even when they are in charge of making the rules.

Other women have said it’s particularly tough to address these issues in the technology field, which is largely dominated by men — and even moreso at the executive level. Facebook Chief Operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is a leading voice in the conversation about the work-life balance after her TED talk that implored women not to “lean back” from their careers when they start thinking about children.

Sandberg said that women have to be more assertive, find partners that are supportive and keep their careers in mind even as they plan a family.

For example, as All Things Digital noted in a piece this May, being pregnant while running a company is a very hard task, not only physically but also in terms of managing perceptions. Tech CEO Jessica Jackley, of Kiva and ProFounder, faced public dissent from her own investors, one of whom penned a somewhat shamefaced essay admitting that he thought “a pregnant founder/CEO is going to fail her company.”

Jackley, in response, thanked the investor for being honest before saying that she will manage her time as a mom in the same way she manages her time now. “When my titles expand from just Founder/CEO to Founder/CEO/Mom, I may have a different kind of load to bear than that of other entrepreneurs, especially if we’re talking about ones who fit the old Silicon Valley stereotype,” she wrote. “I’ve tried forcing myself to fit more into this profile during other seasons of my life and would like to report that, shockingly, there’s really no correlation between eating take-out everyday or skipping that 30-min jog again and great entrepreneurial success. If anything, I’ve found the opposite to be true.”

Mayer’s situation both encouraged and discouraged women puzzling over how to navigate career and family. Lu Stout may have asked whether working through maternity leave will see Mayer missing out on precious time with her newborn, but The Washington Post’s Jena MacGregor took a different message from Mayer’s talk with Fortune.

“[What’s] most remarkable is that the board, according to Mayer, did not reveal any concerns about hiring a CEO who is expecting a baby in three months,” MacGregor wrote. “If Yahoo’s board can put a pregnant woman in her 30s into one of the most challenging, high-profile jobs in technology, maybe every other board out there can judge women simply on their merits, too.”

For her part, Sandberg reached out to her fellow Google alum in a Facebook note that addressed her gender, but not her pregnancy.

She congratulated Mayer — who will be both a competitor and a partner moving forward — by saying, “Congratulations to Marissa Mayer! Great news for women (and men!) across Silicon Valley. All of us at Facebook look forward to working with you in your new role.”

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