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Mother-to-be CEO rivets the working world

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / July 18, 2012
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Here’s a quote you don’t read very often, or perhaps ever, from a person who has just been hired as chief executive of a Fortune 500 company: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.”

On Monday, struggling tech giant Yahoo announced it was hiring Marissa Mayer as chief executive, the company’s fifth leader in five years. But there was even more news to come. The 37-year-old Mayer, a highly respected former Google executive, is pregnant — and the board knew all about it when it appointed her.

News of Mayer’s appointment spread from cubicles to Twitter feeds to day care pick-ups. Working mothers and workplace observers pronounced themselves encouraged that Mayer’s pregnancy was not a factor, somewhat annoyed that in 2012 a pregnant chief executive even merits conversation, and hopeful that she has one of those babies who sleep through the night.

“The question isn’t how is [Mayer] going to balance her work-family life, but it’s how do we ensure that companies are fully using the talent pool [including women of child-bearing years] so we can have an economic engine that will deliver a strong economy?” said Victoria Budson, the founding executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This latest national conversation about working motherhood comes in the wake of last month’s hotly debated Atlantic magazine essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former high-ranking State Department official who wrote about the difficulties of women trying to “have it all.” Like so many others, Slaughter weighed in on Mayer’s situation on Twitter Tuesday: “Making it 2 CEO BEFORE kids isn’t realistic 4 most women & men. Hope @marissamayer can pioneer #flexwork 4 techworld as CEO.”

But even as observers wished Mayer’s pregnancy were a nonissue, many praised Yahoo’s decision to hire her. Mayer is widely considered a strong choice to lead the company, which has a reported audience of 600 million visitors. In Mayer’s 13 years with Google, she worked as an engineer, designer, product manager, and executive; held key roles in Google Search, Google Images, Google Books, and other features; and oversaw the layout of Google’s famously minimalist search homepage.

She’s also good on camera. The video of Mayer’s 2011 interview of Lady Gaga as part of the Musicians@Google series has received almost two million views on YouTube. Vogue says she “has a wonderful Kathleen Turner voice” and “demolishes old-fashioned oppositions of beauty and brains, or women and science, or chic and geek.”

And now CEO and pregnancy.

“We are seeing a shift in thinking in the corporate world, and men embracing talent and understanding that people have lives outside of work, and that’s OK,” said Betsy Myers, the founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.

“Think where we’ve come from since the 1950s,” said Myers, a former senior official in the Clinton administration, “when women were not even hired when we got married because there was an assumption they’d get pregnant.”

There’s no doubt Mayer will have her work cut out for her at Yahoo. Observers say her challenges include attracting top talent, steering the company in the right direction, and improving its reputation with consumers. Yahoo has seen a succession of chief executives come and go in recent years, as the tech giant struggled against Google and social networking powerhouse Facebook. With restive investors and a shrinking workforce, Mayer will have to turn around a ship that’s already listing.

The home front will not be simple, either.

When Mayer told Fortune magazine that she plans to work during a maternity leave that “will be a few weeks long,” some veteran mothers could not help but wonder if she would manage to pull off meetings and strategic planning, or if she would find herself like so many other new moms: sucked into a new-baby vortex that somehow makes the sending of a single e-mail challenging. (Of course, Mayer’s estimated worth of $300 million will make it easier for her to have help with child care.)

The baby, reportedly due in October, will be Mayer’s first, and as every mother interviewed pointed out, it will be hard for Mayer to know beforehand how she will feel about being a working parent.

“I don’t mean this as a negative,” said Carrie Fletcher, manager of professional development and training at Goodwin Procter, and founder of Garden Moms, an online network for Boston-area parents. “But you don’t always know what you’ll want to do. I know lots of people who became stay-at-home moms who never thought they would, and a very good friend who had a 12-week maternity leave went back after six weeks. Everyone sort of has to figure it out in real time.”

The Wall Street Journal saw a different challenge: “Is Yahoo’s New Female CEO Headed for the ‘Glass Cliff’?” a blog asked, noting that, “when women get appointed to leadership positions in the corporate world, a disproportionate amount of time they’re facing a dire situation.”

But a joke on Twitter was more optimistic: “Finally Yahoo has a CEO who will deliver,” @arunverma tweeted.

At least one working mother thinks Mayer will be a better chief executive because she is a mom.

“I think successful women with children are successful in their careers because they have children,” said Julie Rogowski, vice president and general manager of the Boston Design Center, and the mother of five children, ages 13 to 21. “They only fight the battles that need to be fought — they’re saving their energy. And sometimes the best way to deal with [people at work] is how you deal with your children.”

Beth Teitell can be contacted at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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