Why I'm Rooting for Marissa Mayer

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The Washington Post ran a provocative essay this weekend by journalist Sharon Lerner, who wrote to complain about the media attention to new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy. She also made a lot of compelling observations about the serious problems many lower-income mothers face after giving birth, from a lack of quality childcare to jobs that offer no paid maternity leave.

But in framing her piece as a rant about our “obsession with the work-life dilemmas of the rich and famous,” Lerner lost me. I have no doubt that there are plenty of busybodies who are eager to set Mayer straight about how much work she can really expect to get done during her time home with a newborn. But maybe I’ve just been reading different commentaries, because the coverage I’ve seen has focused on the sadly remarkable fact that Yahoo’s board of directors doesn’t seem to have hesitated to hire a pregnant CEO. (Newly-promoted editor in chief of Yahoo! News, Hillary Frey, says her hiring last year while five months pregnant didn’t raise any eyebrows either.)

If discussing that move by Yahoo is an obsession, then color me obsessed. Today’s working mothers don’t encounter anything like the same skepticism their older colleagues did two decades agoor like their mothers did a generation earlier. But that doesn’t mean that male colleagues and superiors don’t still get squirrely when a woman announces a pregnancy or wedding or family illness, questioning her ability to “focus.” If nothing else, Mayer’s hiring should shame employers who have relied on baseless assumptions about female employees when making hiring or promotion decisions.

Of course, most women don’t have Mayer’s wealth and can’t afford the many resources she’ll have at her disposal to raise a young child with little-to-no disruption of her professional duties. But I still can’t agree with Lerner’s statement that “These stories [Mayer and Anne-Marie Slaughter] have pretty much no bearing on whether everyone else can have it all.” No bearing at all? They have at least some bearing, especially because Mayer is likely to be in the spotlight after she officially takes charge of this Fortune 500 company.

One thing Mayer might want to put on her to-do list is the creation of a paternity leave policy at Yahoo! That’s one concrete policy change that can take some of the burden off working mothersand help foster stronger bonds between happy papas and their newborns.

I also can’t so blithely disregard the importance of a young woman with a family in this powerful position. The rest of us have a responsibility to lobby and agitate for change, but lasting reforms are often implemented by politicians or business leaders who didn’t personally experience a need for them. Not all workplace safety rules were pushed through by veterans of the factory floor. We need advocates at the level of Mayer and Slaughter (and their male colleagues) in order to have a chance of changing our cultural attitudes and government policies about paid parental leave and quality child-care. It won’t happen overnightMayer has to prove she can successfully run Yahoo! and outlast the short tenures of her predecessors, after all. And right now, she has every incentive to downplay the potential difficulties involved in trying to balance a newborn and a professional career.

But we know from the example of Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton that when powerful women talk about the challenges facing working parents, people listen. Marissa Mayer will figure out her own work-life dilemma. Whether she can figure out something that will help the rest of us is the questionand the exciting possibility.

Follow me on Twitter at @SullivanAmy.

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