On Marissa Mayer and Trusting Women to Lead

What Marissa Mayer’s new job means for working mothers and women everywhere

by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Imran Siddiquee

Marissa Mayer’s hiring at Yahoo! last week wasn’t a rebuttal to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s claim that “women still can’t have it all,” but it is significant proof that companies are capable of valuing women in new and broader ways. Mayer is 7 months pregnant as she takes over the Fortune 500 company – which makes her the first pregnant (and at 37 years of age, the youngest) person to ever be trusted with such a responsibility.

And let it be clear that this is a matter of earned trust.

For too long one of the most harmful stereotypes levied at new mothers has been the idea that they have compromised intellectual ability. Pregnancy brain? Too many distractions? Women themselves acknowledge the juggling act – the multiple demands on their time and attention – but unfounded assumptions often result in many capable women being overlooked for job opportunities and promotions they are more than deserving of.

In the not-so-distant past, companies would even use the idea of potential pregnancy to avoid hiring more women. It’s something that has, in one way or another, impacted every woman who seeks employment in this country.

New mothers are often depicted as distracted or less committed than their peers. Slaughter herself suggests that moms are more likely to feel guilty about leaving their children at home than fathers are, and that this inevitably influences how long they stay in their careers. For decades, our society has used this kind of thought to establish a subconscious standard: yes, of course we will theoretically treat pregnant women and mothers the same as everyone else, but, if given the choice, why would we ever hire them over an equally capable non-pregnant man? And since all women could one day become pregnant, isn’t it less risky to just hire a man for our most important jobs?

Yahoo! and their new CEO just threw that logic out the window. And let’s just say it — good riddance!

What’s clear is that the multi-million dollar company is interested in Marissa Mayer’s talents and abilities above all else – including her gender. They want her to lead their company in a time of difficulty because she is the absolute best person for the job. And yes, they know she’s pregnant.

This is a triumph for all of us, men and women worldwide, who have always known the true value and potential of women. Whether or not you ever planned on being a mother, if you are a woman, your opportunities have expanded overnight.

Of course Marissa has earned a place of privilege and is therefore capable of affording significant childcare. And yes, most Americans don’t have the resources at their fingertips that might allow them to take such a short maternity leave.

Yet it’s saddening to see some women use this moment to criticize Marissa rather than rally behind her. Some have said that her two week break from work will set-up unrealistic expectations for all of us; and, some have used it to question her commitment to motherhood. These kinds of attacks are mean, unhelpful, and ultimately shortsighted.

It’s a symptom of what Aaron Sorkin critiqued in a recent episode of The Newsroom – America’s obsession with tabloid culture and “take down” journalism. How does criticizing, judging and taking down other women help us as a society?

As a result of Marissa’s high-profile hiring, we actually all have an extraordinary opportunity here to grow as a culture; to have a real conversation around why more moms in leadership are crucial to our country’s future and why paid maternity/paternity leave is so essential.

Instead of bringing Marissa down, let’s use her example to fight for what elevates us all! And let’s rejoice in the positive impact the news of her hiring might have on our culture.

Perception is everything in this country, and women everywhere are now more likely to be perceived as having what it takes to get a promotion or raise. And as women become more valuable to companies (especially since more of us will now be seen as potential leaders in the workplace), they are more likely to be heard when speaking about other issues we face at work.

The change in perception will impact young women and girls as well, who will begin to see themselves as more capable of following in Mayer’s footsteps – especially because of the kind of company Yahoo! is. This isn’t IBM or even Hewlett-Packard – it’s a hugely recognizable brand amongst youth. As the third largest email client and most popular online news source, it is a significant portal of information for a generation of girls who have grown up on the Internet.

For them to know that a woman – not to mention a future young mother– is in control of such important technology, is beyond exciting. When you consider the grave lack of women in STEM fields, it’s practically revolutionary.

So we should congratulate Mayer and Yahoo! for making this historic choice. We should also, as individuals, celebrate the achievement – especially with young women – and use it to fuel individual career aspirations.

For Yahoo! and the rest of Silicon Valley, this has to be a turning point in the treatment of women at work and for women’s representation in top positions within the industry. This can’t be a one-off situation, but instead a harbinger of change to come.

As we explored in Miss Representation, without role models and inspiring examples, it’s extremely difficult for women in this country to reach the top in any field. And, without more balance in leadership, we can’t truly influence the way women are treated in our culture.

Will Mayer’s hiring transform society overnight? Probably not. But it does mean all women, as Patricia Sellers says, have a “new kind of role model” to aspire towards. A new kind of leader they can look to and dream of becoming.

So let’s say goodbye to the ugliness of the “take down” culture, and instead acknowledge what a gift this is and the chance we now have to grow as a society.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the Founder and CEO of MissRepresentation.org. Follow her on Twitter.

Written by Imran Siddiquee at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee