IN THE data torrents of computer code which power the world’s most ubiquitous websites, a single random digit can crash a system or throw a household name offline. No-one knows that better than Marissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo.
At the beginning of last week, Mayer was the 37-year-old high-flier whose appointment to the top job at Yahoo had just capped a Silicon Valley dream career at Google. Former colleagues lined up to heap praise on the computer engineer. Working women delighted in the fact that a woman had just taken a top job in an industry dominated by nerdy men.
But then came the nugget of data that changed the tone of the conversation; Mayer is due to have her first child in October. And she intends to work through her maternity leave. Overnight the technology superhero, riding in to save the troubled internet giant, became an over-achieving hate figure, demonised for her lack of maternal feeling and patronised for underestimating the challenges of motherhood.
Mayer, who announced her pregnancy to the world via Twitter, has defended her decision:
“I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” Mayer said in an interview. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
Mayer has praised Yahoo for “their evolved thinking” in not questioning her about her pregnancy during the recruitment process.
So is Mayer an inspirational figure smashing a double-glazed glass ceiling and soaring to the top while pregnant, or is she a self-absorbed careerist blind to the life-changing challenge which motherhood is about to hand her?
“It’s encouraging to hear of a woman being promoted while she’s pregnant. It’s groundbreaking and sends the message that women can have children and pursue their careers,” said Jude Barber, an architect and mother of one.
Barber took six months’ maternity leave when her daughter was born and believes the time off made her more, not less, attractive as an employee. Her firm, Collective Architecture in Glasgow, offers male and female employees six months’ paid leave when they have a child and equal rights to flexible working after they return to work. “Workplaces in general need to be more accepting and accommodating for working mothers and fathers,” added Barber.
Mayer’s situation is unique: she is the only leader of a Fortune 500 company ever to be appointed while pregnant. And, since Yahoo has pledged to pay her up to $100 million over the next five years, her income may insulate her from many of the decisions that ordinary working mothers have to make about how to juggle motherhood and work.
Had Mayer been armed with a less stellar CV and going for a more junior position, would she have got the same treatment?
Innes Clark, partner and employment lawyer at Morton Fraser Solicitors, says that, far from being applauded, Yahoo’s stance should be the norm. “In one sense it is somewhat depressing that Yahoo’s approach is being widely celebrated given that, had this been a job vacancy in the UK and Ms Mayer had not been appointed because she was pregnant, then it would have been a very clear breach of the Equality Act,” said Clark, adding that if such a breach can be proved it would open a company up to a claim for uncapped damages.
Clark continued: “Leaving aside the issue of legal liability, it would be very shortsighted for an employer to turn down the best candidate for the job because she is pregnant. If an employer was minded to do that then where does it end? Do they not appoint any female job candidates who might have a child at some point in the future?”
It’s only a few decades since employers would routinely make exactly that decision. Now some feel the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction with female executives who have spent their careers challenging male norms believing that they can and should go from the maternity ward straight back to the boardroom.
Among the high-profile businesswomen who have done just that is Karren Brady, former managing director of Birmingham City Football Club and Alan Sugar’s sidekick on The Apprentice. Brady famously had her first child on a Friday and was back at her desk on the Monday, a decision she now describes as “shameful”.
Veronika McWilliam, an investment manager and mother of three, says: “Women in high positions seem increasingly to feel that they can’t take the time off. Melissa Mayer has worked very hard to get where she is but I think it’s a mistake to go straight back to work. You can never get that time back [after the baby is born]. In 20 years’ time she’ll probably regret it.”
Online, many mothers have questioned how Mayer would respond to more junior Yahoo employees who wanted to take extended maternity breaks. Mummy blogs have been buzzing with working mothers expressing the fear that a couple of weeks could become the norm for maternity leave, allowing just enough time for a crash course in nappy changing, mother-child bonding and getting by with no sleep.
In that latter category at least Mayer has a head start. She has frequently spoken about her Thatcher-like ability to thrive on just four or five hours’ sleep a night and she regularly works 120-hour weeks.
Her many critics might find it easier to accept Mayer’s decision if she was rushing back to work because she needed the money. But with an estimated net worth of $300m plus her salary from Yahoo, Mayer hasn’t needed to work for some time. The fact that she continues to do so suggests she loves her job.
Many women, whether they have children or not, can relate to that.