Skip to main content

What signal is Marissa Mayer giving to Yahoo employees?

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN
July 19, 2012 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, has said her maternity leave
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, has said her maternity leave "will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yahoo has chosen Marissa Mayer, who is pregnant, as its new CEO
  • Stephanie Coontz: Mayer's pledge of a short maternity leave sets a bad precedent for others
  • She says Mayer will do well, but Yahoo's lower-level employees with kids may feel inhibited
  • Coontz: Leaders who take little time off create a work culture that may be less family friendly

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

(CNN) -- The news that Yahoo knowingly chose a pregnant woman as its new CEO has rightly been heralded by working women and their allies as another hole in the glass ceiling. Marissa Mayer, until now a top executive at Google, reports that when she told Yahoo's board of directors that she and her husband are expecting their first child in October, no one expressed any second thoughts about hiring her. The lack of reaction "showed their evolved thinking," she said.

But Mayer's next sentence immediately squashed any illusions that her presence at Yahoo foreshadows any change in corporate America's 24/7 work culture. "My maternity leave," she told reporters, "will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."

Mayer's assurance that having a child will require so little adjustment in her work schedule has led many women to worry that she is naive about the physical and emotional price she will pay for taking so little time to recuperate and bond with her new baby. Others express concern that her child will suffer for her decision.

Tech: 11 fun facts about Mayer

Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz

These worries are mostly groundless. The real problem with Mayer's pledge to take only a few weeks off and work right through it has little to do with her own welfare or her child's. It is the message this sends to her employees about the expected work culture at Yahoo.

Mayer will probably do just fine returning to work so early. Top executives have much more flexibility than the lower-level employees they rely on to be at the office bright and early, set things up for the day, reschedule appointments when necessary, run errands and deliver needed papers if they are working off-site. They can also afford to hire live-in nannies so that they never need to scramble to cover gaps or breakdowns in child care coverage. Mayer's husband, a tech investor, has similar flexibility.

Marissa Mayer's on the job at Yahoo
Yahoo's surprising CEO pick
Mayer now youngest CEO on Fortune 500
Marissa Mayer takes the reins at Yahoo

Mayer's son is also likely to turn out fine, assuming that she and her husband are even moderately competent parents. On average, while very short maternity leaves do increase the risk of insecure attachment between mother and child, most mothers bond successfully, even with short leaves. Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, authors of "When Partners Become Parents" and leading experts in what makes for effective child outcomes, note that kids of working mothers do well when women are happy with their jobs, have good child care arrangements, and fathers actively participate in making these work-family choices.

Tech: Six life lessons from Yahoo CEO

In fact, a major predictor of whether a woman will be warm and responsive to her child, avoiding the bouts of depression that are one of the most serious threats to effective parenting, is whether she is happy about the work choices she makes. A woman with Mayer's work ethic would probably be a less effective parent if she felt compelled to stay home when she wanted to work.

But Mayer's insistence that she will get back to work so quickly sets a bad precedent for Yahoo's lower-level employees, mothers and fathers, who do not have the job flexibility and cannot afford the extensive social support and backup systems that Mayer and her husband will be able to construct.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, argues that the personal work-life choices of top leaders in a workplace are as important as their formal work-life programs and policies in shaping expectations about what is and is not acceptable. Leaders who take little time off for family create a work culture that inhibits lower-level employees from asking for any work-family rearrangements they may need.

Tech: The internet just wants Mayer to fix Flickr

It's great that corporate leaders no longer assume a high-powered female employee will lose her brain, drive and work commitment when she gets pregnant. And I admire Mayer for feeling free to set a high priority upon her work commitments without succumbing to the guilt that weighs down so many working moms. But it might be better for the rest of us working parents, who don't have the same resources and support systems, if she would take a longer leave and maintain a dignified silence about just how many work hours she puts in during it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

How do you balance career and family? Let us know on CNN iReport.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT