Marissa Mayer: Irrelevant “Superwoman” or Agent of Change?

Mayer faces a unique opportunity to remake her workplace and lead her employees in a great experiment of making Yahoo more family-friendly

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Marissa Mayer speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2012 on May 22, 2012.

Marissa Mayer is currently the most powerful pregnant woman in America,” work-life maven Lisa Belkin wrote in her Huffington Post column of the newly named Yahoo CEO, who is 37 years old and six months pregnant with her first child. “What does that mean for the rest of us?”

On the face of it, I’d say, not that much.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter argued convincingly last month in her much-talked-about Atlantic cover story, the achievements and work-life acrobatics of veritable superwomen like Mayer (“My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” she recently told Fortune) don’t have a whole lot of relevance for the vast majority of us, who are lucky, on any given day, if we can manage to get out of the house without any article of clothing on inside-out.

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“These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves,” Slaughter very wisely commented. “Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.”

Mayer will do what she needs to do, her path facilitated by a lucky combination of copious inner resources — the intelligence, stamina and guts it took to get to her perch — and considerable outer resources in the form of a spouse and money. She will put together a life that works for her, and while we can debate her choices until we’re collectively blue in the face, all that talk won’t do much of anything to make most women’s, and most families’, lives more livable.

(MORE: Marissa Mayer: Is the Yahoo CEO’s Pregnancy Good for Working Moms?)

Mayer, however, having achieved such a prominent position of power while pregnant, does have a chance to move this discussion beyond words. What could make her appointment deeply meaningful for women at Yahoo and beyond, will be what she chooses to do for her employees. Will she expect her female staff to follow her example and perform such girl-macho heroics as working through their few meager weeks of leave? Or will she take a “do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do” attitude and encourage women not at the very tippy-top to live their own lives in a more reasonable and health-sustaining way? Will she, as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg famously does, leave the office each day at 5:30 and — most importantly — encourage those below her to do the same? Or will she — as she clearly has until now felt compelled to do — keep pushing to prove herself as not less than the guys, and not held back by the perceived constraints of motherhood?

New research from the Families and Work Institute holds out some hope that her experience could make her a new sort of leader: the organization’s 2012 national study of employers found that companies that have more women (and racial and ethnic minorities) in top and senior positions are more supportive of families, offering greater flexibility, more child care and elder care assistance, and better health care benefits. Whether this is because women and non-white males are more attuned — and more likely to act-upon their attunement — to the needs of working families, or because, as Families and Work Institute President Ellen Galinsky told me this week, companies that are more work/life-supportive tend to be more open to leadership by women and people of color in the first place, hasn’t yet been determined.

(MORE: Men Never Had It All)

What is clear, however, is that Mayer faces a unique opportunity to remake her workplace. To put into action the one key insight that all working mothers quickly glean: that what was previously done in nine hours can, often enough, be done in seven — provided that everyone’s on the same page in seeking to minimize, rather than maximize, time spent “showing the flag” away from home. She will have the chance to lead her employees in a great experiment in making work really work for families — provided that she’s willing to take risks, think creatively, and listen to the wants and needs of those who work for her. From her perch at one of America’s most-watched companies, she can set an example for all the rest. Come to think of it, that’s a job worthy of a superwoman.