Marissa Mayer. Pregnant CEO. Big Whoop

Yahoo's new CEO won't have it tougher than men in similar leadership roles just because she's pregnant, says another CEO, mother, and the first governor ever to give birth while in office—to twins.

No Big Deal.

That’s my reaction to the news that Marissa Mayer is assuming the helm of Yahoo six months pregnant. I could opine about the inherent sexism of media interest in such a story, but that, too, is no big deal.

I’m betting Mayer (and Yahoo’s PR team) was prepared for the debate that her very public (now) pregnancy would trigger—we’re talking motherhood, power, and cultural priorities, after all. I was not prepared in 2001 when, at age 36, I was thrust from the position of lieutenant governor to governor of Massachusetts when Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada. I was eight months pregnant. With twins. I gave birth to my girls as governor. Then came the terror attacks of September 11th and the subsequent fiscal crisis in Massachusetts. If you don’t believe Marissa Mayer when she says she’ll work through maternity leave, consider that I chaired a meeting of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council via teleconference from my hospital bed.

But that was more than a decade ago. Like lightning heralding thunder, women and men, parenting or not, expect talking heads to stir society’s pot of unresolved family issues when a woman lands the big job.

So, here is a reality check: Marissa Mayer (like me) is not likely to emerge as a role model for everyday working parenthood. Her experience will in no way mirror the vast majority of mothers and fathers struggling to make ends meet and raise healthy, responsible kids. Sure, she will face the near daily Hobson’s choices that torture all working parents, like deciding between an important investor meeting and the school play. But barring the weeks directly after giving birth, a woman with a family in a powerful position like Mayer's doesn’t have it that much tougher than a man in a similar position precisely because she’s in that position. The job comes with significant resources will help make the day-to-day details, as well as life’s tougher challenges, well, less tough. And I begrudge her none of it—in fact I celebrate her success. It’s a positive step forward in a time when only 5% of American CEOs are women. That fact, not Mayer’s pregnancy and how she deals with maternity leave, is a bellwether.

What I do take issue with are social commentators who will attempt to extrapolate lessons of parenting success or failure from Mayer’s experience. Or use it to once again stir up contrived debates about the very personal choices that some small percentage of working women have. We’d all be better served discussing her business acumen, leadership skills, and management style (and while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the pejorative "Cupcake Princess" moniker). Attention devoted to this aspect of her life distracts us from solving the real problems faced by parents who work tirelessly without power, privilege, or means. It muddies the realities we need to face in order to ensure progress for mothers and fathers.

Think about this data point: In 1960, just over 25% of American women worked; that number is more than 70% today. And yet U.S. work-family policies have not been dramatically updated to reflect this stunning demographic leap. So, let’s spend time talking about expanding access to proven levers of economic success for these families: paid maternity leave, flexible employment opportunities up and down the economic ladder, more emphasis on critical education and career readiness, meaningful on and off ramps for parents who slow their careers to meet family obligations.

And let’s spend time talking honestly to our daughters—and sons—about the choices available to them. As a mother of three daughters, I feel a particular sense of urgency, especially as they approach their teenage and adult years. Frankly, a decade in, I still don’t get the "mommy wars" or the tired debate over whether women can "have it all." I have yet to meet any women who think they’ve nailed it on the work-family front, even the lucky and successful ones. Certainly not the friend of mine who made the very hard decision to walk away from a very successful career in computer hardware sales to stay home with her children. She’s now working her way back in to a job at a much lower level a decade later as the mother to three teenagers. I'm no closer to figuring it out myself. Working mothers tend to focus on the sacrifices and the challenges, and I could outline many. Yet, while discussing the ramifications of choices ranging from "go hard, go fast, go high" or "stay at home," I hope we can also remember to discuss the enormous satisfaction of having both a full, loving family life and a rewarding, demanding professional life. One of the conscious decisions I have made in talking to my own daughters is to, yes, admit how much I miss them on business trips and how terrible I feel when I miss a field hockey game or a musical performance; but I also let them know how much I love my job and how fortunate I am to do meaningful work that improves our education system.

I’ve been lucky. In the last year, I was once again offered a fabulous but demanding job (which I took). Just as my girls were born at the worst possible time for my political career, taking the job as CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages at the dawn of my children's teen years was not the best timing, which is why I am pretty sure there is never a perfect time for a big job if you are an ambitious woman who is pregnant or parenting.

Which brings me back to Marissa Mayer. She is certainly facing challenges, and not just in the nursery. She is Yahoo’s fifth CEO in the past year and is taking over at a time of significant upheaval in the digital media markets and the economy as a whole. While she may not be a bellwether for working parents, Yahoo can still be a bellwether for the economy, with $19 billion in market capitalization and tens of thousands of jobs in the balance.

Her success will be our success, but not because she is a mother; rather, because she is a successful force in the tech industry who opens doors for other smart, ambitious women like herself. And that will be a big deal.

Jane Swift served as Governor of Massachusetts from 2001-2003.  She was the first governor in the nation to give birth in office.  In her 10-year career in Massachusetts politics, she also served as Lt. Governor and a state senator. Today, Swift is the CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages in Middlebury, Vermont. Swift currently serves on the boards of Suburban Propane (SPH), Sally Ride Science, and the External Women’s Advisory Network for Deloitte. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts with her husband and their three children.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Stosberg]

Do you agree with Jane Swift? Share your reaction in the comments section below.

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  • Povl Henningsen

    Enjoyed reading your post. From a Danish perspective you focus on some key points that are also important in this part of the world. The need to create the framework for making intelligent personal choices with regard to family issues. A well functioning system to take care of kids is in place here - makes it easier for individuals to create optimum balance of work and family.
    I think the way forward is to share more experiences across the Atlantic - learning from each other. Do you think Marissa would enjoy appearing as a key note speaker in Denmark ?

  • Cathtrap

    Congratulations on your success and reminding all of us that a rich, fulfilling life for any  individual benefits all of society, Your girls are lucky to have such a great role model and Yahoo is lucky to have Marissa Mayer as their new CEO.

  • Lisa Nirell

    Jane, what an insightful post.
    We know that working women will have made great strides when the Marissa conversation shifts from pregnancy to company performance.
    Let's see how things develop in the media...

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us too.


  • Shimon

    I think it would be a much bigger problem if the pregnant CEO was a male, so why is this still a topic for discussion???

  • Johnny

    Yes, Ms. Swift, hopefully you won't come to represent the female worker.  As I recall, you both used a state police helicopter to transport you across a rather small state and, even worse, made state employees babysit for your newborn (unpaid to boot).  Marissa Meyer is not likely to repeat those ethical lapses.

  • Cashoyt

    I think these are 2 perfect examples of how parents make mistakes with their children's best interest as the priority. If you dig a little deeper you will see that the staffers in question were college friends who worked with Jane throughout those 10 years and offered help occasionally. Also the helicopter was in response to a medical emergency - flying to her daughter's hospital bedside in lieu of the 3 hour drive. She immediately apologized and reimbursed the state for the expense. ... Why do we think it shows female weakness? Because we expect men to be less emotional and to finish their business before taking the logical, if slower, route home. She also had to routinely defend her choice to work rather than stay home with the children, usually with the assumption they were being raised by strangers (nannies, etc.), when their father was their primary caregiver, surrounded by friends and family. She is a real person, confronted by real problems, and had she been a CEO rather than public official, her "wrongs" probably would have been non-issues. ... In short, get the whole story before trashing someone based in

  • Aj Gunn

    Again my friend Jane has given me another lesson of how incredible she is,yea like I needed another one,she has proven again she is smarter than i am and always teaching me something as well,she always did.
    people have ridiculed me for standing by Janes decisions but you know what Jane is my friend and she's smart too ,thanks for another great lesson.

  • anonymous

    We really needed to read that grammatical disaster of a run-on sentence twice. Thanks.

  • Aj Gunn

    Jane is awesome again she proves the person she is and how she's always been and still proving she's smarter than I am and still teaching me many people have ridiculed me for supporting Jane and her decisions but Jane Swift is my friend who i'm very proud of and she's smart too.
    Alfonzie Gunn Jr.

  • Anita Loomba

    Great article and observation. The industry needs more examples like yourself and Melissa. Thank for the insight.

  • Jeannie Ism

    Great, great article. People need to start looking at Marissa's situation, and ALL working women's situation in a new light. Thank you.

  • Susanne Dupes

    An excellent observation.  We still have so much work to do before we can be having the right conversation.  Thank you for this leveling commentary!!

  • Brynn Moynihan

    Thanks for writing this Jane. It has been driving me nuts how this has become such a hot topic, and a constant reminder of the double-standard that still exists in business. Both you and Marissa stand as exemplary examples of what strong, intelligent women and mothers can accomplish.