Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
Congratulations are in order for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who gave birth to a baby boy Sunday night. But don’t expect her to be gone for long: She reportedly intends to work remotely and return to the office “as soon as possible, likely in 1-2 weeks.”
The undercurrent here, first raised back in July when Mayer announced her maternity leave would be a “few weeks long” stretches beyond the eternal judgment that surrounds parenting. It’s also the idea that Mayer has become a role model whose actions could affect the decisions of other women or other companies.
She’s far from being the only woman in a leadership position to birth a child—New York Magazine points out that Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto gave birth while in office back in 1990, and four women in Congress have had babies in since 2007. But she is very likely the first woman of a struggling Fortune 500 technology company to do so.
As a result, some observers have spent the past few months fretting that Mayer’s trailblazing milestone—a pregnant CEO of a major technology firm—could end up hurting women as much as it helps them. Rather than breaking the mold, some worry, she’s fitting right into it. Fears have set in that Mayer’s short maternity leave could inspire less flexibility for women, rather than more. (“If Marissa Mayer can go back to work as CEO in a week, you can at least answer a few emails, can’t you, lowly office drone?”)
Like it or not, Mayer has become a leader in the Great Mommy Debate, someone whose decisions, successes and failures will be carefully scrutinized, both publicly in the media echo chamber and privately by working mothers everywhere.
It’s not fair, of course, to position her as a role model in the broader debate over what working mothers can or can’t do. Mayer has vastly more resources than most (she can afford round-the-clock nannies and cooks and maids). She has more freedom to control her schedule because she’s in charge (ask any working mother what’s harder, long hours or unpredictable hours, and it’s the latter that will prompt more complaints). And she apparently thrives off of hard work and may personally miss being away from it more than some others do (Mayer has said she likes “to stay in the rhythm of things” and that she can get by on as little as four to six hours of sleep).
What will be fair to watch, however, is how Mayer’s decisions affect the culture at her company. She may not have been selected as leader for all working moms, but she was named the CEO of Yahoo. I’m not saying this will happen, but if women at the company were to start feeling pressure to come back to work sooner because their CEO did, or if managers there were to start questioning traditional maternity leaves because of Mayer’s decision, she would need to speak out clearly and authoritatively that this was her personal choice and that the company firmly backs maternity benefits for its employees.
There is also the risk that her decision to return so quickly could say something unintended to her senior team. The CEO’s job is to set strategy, develop leaders and hold people accountable for their performance. Had she said “I’ll be away for a while, but in the meantime I’ll be available for all critical strategic decisions and trust my senior team to operate the company,” she might have ended up doing more to develop the people who work for her, and the relationships she has with them. While I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to say how long Mayer should take off, I do see the value in this advice from CityGrid executive Kara Nortman: “Maternity leave creates opportunity for senior leaders to manage their business through time-lapse photography. After a limited time of light management it is much easier to tell who moved through walls to execute and who did not.”
So Mazel Tov, Marissa Mayer. Congrats on your baby boy. Don’t worry too much about how your personal decisions might affect the entire universe of working moms: Pregnancy and motherhood are personal calls, and you have to do what’s right for you and your child. Just don’t forget, while you’re thinking about how much being away from Yahoo could have an impact the company, that it’s possible coming back so quickly could have an impact on it, too.
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