July 17, 2012 at 11:49 AM ET
It’s unusual enough to hear that a major corporation anointed a woman as CEO, but a pregnant CEO?
Yahoo announced Monday that Marissa Mayer, a former Google executive, was taking the reins of the technology company, and hours later it was disclosed that she was also expecting her first child in October.
Mayer chose to disclose her pregnancy to the company’s board before she got the final job offer, and the board was supposedly fine and dandy with the news.
"They showed their evolved thinking," Mayer told Fortune.
Yahoo's board may have been reassured by Mayer's unusual description of how she plans to handle the time off she will take to have a baby.
"My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it," Mayer said.
It's the kind of news that may get other pregnant women at Yahoo further down the chain worried about the time they put in after childbirth.
Many executives in Corporate America today tout how they lead by example and show their employees that work-life balance is critical. Taking emails while dealing with a newborn might be tougher than first-time-mom-to-be Mayer realizes.
Although it is also worth noting that not all women are as lucky as Mayer to even have a maternity leave benefit. (The United States is one of the only industrialized nations without mandated maternity leave.)
In any case Yahoo's board is to be applauded for looking beyond Mayer's pregnancy to the leadership she can provide the company over the long term.
“Appointing a woman as CEO is pretty rare in and of itself, and having a pregnant one is even more rare,” said Eden King, co-author of "How Women Can Make It Work: The Science of Success." “Many women who reach that level do not have children at all, much less are pregnant at the time.”
What ever does happen for Yahoo's newest CEO, her appointment will up the ante on the working mommy debate. But don't expect it to change the work world.
“It’s a sample size of one, and it’s hard to know if this represents social change. I certainly have hope, but most of the evidence shows that there’s substantial discrimination of pregnant women who are working," said King, who’s an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University with a focus on women and the workplace.
Indeed, the number of pregnancy discrimination claims have been rising in the last decade, and that prompted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to hold a public hearing earlier this year to address the problem. “A few employers have forgotten, or never learned, that it’s against the law to discriminate against women because of pregnancy,” David Lopez, the EEOC’s general counsel during the February hearing.
It’s unlawful, he stressed, to deprive a pregnant woman "the opportunity to sustain herself or her family based on stereotypical assumptions” that she won’t be as dedicated to her employers as a man or a woman who isn't pregnant.
The number of pregnancy discrimination charges increased about 15 percent in the last 10 years to 5,797 last year. That's down slightly from 2010's total claims of 6,119, according to the EEOC.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was signed into law in 1978 in order to stop such bias, but many women's advocacy groups believe it doesn’t go far enough. A bill introduced in May called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is similar to the American With Disabilities Act, is supposed to fill the donut hole that the previous act left open when it comes to making accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace.
“Equal opportunity in the workplace is an essential right in this country, and it is deplorable that women are still being fired, forced out of their jobs, and denied employment and promotion opportunities because they become pregnant," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is badly needed legislation that would help stem this discrimination and benefit women and their families tremendously.”
But in the end, bias against pregnant workers and whether they’ll land a certain job often comes down to perceptions, maintained King. In most cases, she said, the discrimination is based on a belief that a woman won’t be able to handle the job, or chose not to work after they have children.
In the case of Yahoo’s Mayer, she’s made it clear she’ll be more than productive in her new gig even as a mom.
Yahoo spokeswoman Dana Lengkeek said Mayer was not available for interviews Tuesday, but directed NBCNews.com to the Fortune article. Mayer did tweet the pregnancy news late Monday: "Another piece of good news today - @zackbogue and I are expecting a new baby boy!" (Zack Bogue is her husband.)
Mayer has a tough road ahead given the many Yahoo CEOs before her who have tried to turn the beleaguered company around in the last few years. There is no doubt Wall Street will be closely watching her progress. How will a pregnant CEO be perceived by investors?
"Turning Yahoo around is likely going to be a near impossible task; the stress, at least initially, is likely to be similar to that stress of starting Google, and you add to that the stress of having a child and the result could be catastrophic for one or the other," said technology analyst Rob Enderle. "On the other hand, this pregnancy might become a forcing function. Often inexperienced turnaround CEOs learn too late the necessity of building a very strong balanced team; in order to take the pressure off of her during her pregnancy building such a team will have higher priority and, in the end, it will be the team that will do this not the CEO alone."
The pregnancy, he continued, "may actually help focus Marissa on doing something that often is neglected and could actually better assure the result. In the end her job is to turn Yahoo around; how she gets there isn’t as important. Being pregnant could become a best practice which would screw a lot of male CEOs out there."
How women handle their pregnancies and how they disclose them, will likely impact their careers, King noted.
“Marissa Mayer made the decision to tell the company before the offer, which was ethical for her to do but not legally required,” she said. “I know women who waited to disclose pregnancy until after they got a job or promotion to protect the jobs they deserved.”
On a personal note, King admitted that she was pregnant when she was up for a promotion but waited to tell her co workers and managers until after she secured the position. "I have supportive supervisors and colleagues but I didn't want to chance it," she said. "I know the research."
Did you ever face a similar situation while job hunting? How did you handle it? Let us know.
More money and business news: