Among its many profound effects that I consider often in my professional as well as personal life, social media has become a giant lighting rod for rushes to judgement. And so when Marissa Mayer, the not-even-40, new-mother+CEO of Yahoo! announced several weeks back that she was putting an end to working from home in her company, I felt myself immediately reacting, given the many nerves her decision touched at once. There are some obvious connections between us. We are both women in leadership roles in digital (she clearly the better titled, compensated, and renowned). We are both named Maris(s)a (I’ll offer that I believe I have the correct spelling, however). We are both mothers (though I have about a 12 year head-start on her). And we have both been in the middle of the conversation about work-life, specifically about working moms. The key difference is, in my case that has been an active choice and a personal passion; in Marissa’s case, it would seem more of a circumstance of her high profile – and the curiosity and scrutiny that has accompanied it.
So tamping down those first indignant flames sparked by her announcement, it occurs to me that an “executive mom” response to her decision has to be more complex, if ambivalent. In spite of the fact that in the past decade, women took over the majority of the U.S. workforce, at the highest echelons of careers, women are still a disappointingly small minority, and when we see someone like Marissa – young and vibrant, cute yet fierce, grabbing the ultimate corporate brass ring while in maternity clothes – it is impossible not to pin her as an Executive Mom Posterchild. Yet she never campaigned for this position, and has in fact seems to have little interest in it. I believe this is actually the core of the issue with Marissa’s move – even more than the move itself. We want to be progressed enough that we shouldn’t need or expect every woman in a position of serious power to be de facto champions of women and families. And yet, we aren’t. So we DO need and expect them to represent.
As a fellow executive, I can glean the underlying business issues that prompted Marissa to want to bring her employees in physically; I happen to work in a corporate culture in which facetime is very important. However, whether she likes it or not (and it would appear that she doesn’t like it, or perhaps doesn’t care), the social repercussions of the actions of this young female CEO matter as much as the actions themselves. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it… Wisdom a mother might tell you. In subsequent days, this Marissa made another interesting (potentially somewhat compensatory) move to extend Yahoo! maternity leave policy. Time will tell if she is the CEO this company sorely needs. And in the meantime, it appears more time is needed before we see ALL CEOs – men and women – reconciling how to make the right business decisions that also send a positive message to working parents. Men and women.