XX in Tech

Can Marissa Mayer Have It All On a Glass Cliff?

Work-life balance on the 'superhuman' millionaire level.
marissa new4 Can Marissa Mayer Have It All On a Glass Cliff?

Ms. Mayer (Photo: Google+)

When the news broke yesterday afternoon that Marissa Mayer would be taking over as Yahoo’s CEO, one detail was left out until long after market hours: Close to midnight last night, Fortune reported that today Ms. Mayer will be starting her new job six months pregnant.

As a 37-year-old, female CEO of a major public tech company, Ms. Mayer was already in a rarefied position. But the latest development is without precedent, leaving tech reporters debating whether pregnancy is a “material fact,” and wondering if it would be covered in Yahoo’s earnings call this afternoon.

CNBC technology correspondent Jon Fortt called it “at once wonderful & awkward” that pregnancy was a topic in financial journalism. In a way, his observation about awkwardness illustrates how little progress we have made. After all, it’s a hard to imagine a more universal human condition. Pregnancy is how we all got on this planet in the first place.

In the wake of the Fortune article, Yahoo’s board of directors, who were informed of Ms. Mayer’s pregnancy during the CEO search in late June, were applauded as “enlightened” and forward-thinking for leaving it out of their decision-making process. (Employment law aside, it’s hard to imagine that Yahoo affords every potential female hire, especially in its lower rungs, the same open-mindedness.)

Insiders like Michael Arrington argue that Ms. Mayer is, “completely out of Yahoo’s league.” Indeed, stunned by the ailing company’s ability to poach Ms. Mayer, Marc Andreessen also noted that, “She was not known to be available and when companies get into these dire straits, it’s hard to get someone of this caliber.” However, studies have shown that historically company boards, “give women a position of power only when there’s a strong chance of failure.”

No doubt the chief executive position looked enticing to Ms. Mayer. Scuttlebutt from inside Google is that Ms. Mayer felt marginalized since being removed from the CEO’s inner circle under the Larry Page’s tenure.

Nonetheless, Yahoo shareholders may be relieved to hear that Ms. Mayer, an overachieving Type A if we ever met one, will not be taking much time off for the birth of her first child, telling Fortune:

“I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” she says, referring to the CEO job that she is starting tomorrow. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”

Of course, the option of getting help to work through maternity leave and return to the office so quickly isn’t open to most women. And it didn’t take long for Ms. Mayer’s news to get subsumed in the debate that’s been roiling since Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover story in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Ms. Slaughter herself weighed in, tweeting, “Some women can, absolutely. & I applaud her! but she makes my point. She’s superhuman, rich, & in charge. Still need change!”

For careful observers of the tech industry, it’s particularly riveting considering how vocal Ms. Mayer has been about her unique perspective on work-life balance. At a Q&A in March, we were transfixed watching Ms. Mayer dismiss the idea of being overworked in the same breath as she recalled 130 hour work weeks in Google’s early days. “My theory is that burnout is about resentment,” she told the audience at the 92nd Street Y, arguing that if you make time for the one thing that’s central to your happiness–like travel or kids’ soccer games–you’ll be energized for the rest of the demands of your career.

Contrast that with another Xoogler, Sheryl Sandberg, who, despite her title as Facebook COO, only recently felt comfortable enough to admit that since having kids, she leaves the office every day at 5:30.

We will be curious to see whether Ms. Mayer remains as transparent about negotiating work-life balance going forward. After all, turning Yahoo around looks less like a glass ceiling than a “glass cliff.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com