Yahoo's Marissa Mayer is a symbol for American working mothers, whether she likes it or not

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to take “limited parental leave” after the birth of her twins has reignited a long-standing debate.

Whether she likes it or not, Mayer has become a symbol for American working mothers.

On Monday evening, Mayer announced on her Tumblr page  that she is due to have two baby girls in December. Mayer said that she will continue to work throughout her pregnancy and will take “limited time away” after the birth of her twins, just as she did after the birth of her son Macallister in 2012. 

“I’ve shared the news and my plans with Yahoo’s Board of Directors and my executive team, and they are incredibly supportive and happy for me,” she writes.

As her previous decision did in 2012, Mayer’s recent announcement that she plans to take limited time off has evoked a strong and mixed reaction.

In 2012, Mayer set a precedent as the first woman to ever become CEO of a major public company in the U.S. while pregnant, and many see the mum CEO as a symbol for women who can “have it all.”

“She’s really cutting some new road here, and I think it’s really exciting,” Betsy Myers, founding director of Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, tells Business Insider.

“She’s a great role model for women who want to be leaders, women who are mums and leaders — I just think she’s a terrific role model for us all,” she says.

Others on Twitter concur.


 As Mayer writes in her Tumblr post, the executive continues to balance her work-life and personal-life:

I’m blessed to have experienced some of my most extraordinary and proudest personal moments while being Yahoo’s CEO. Moving forward, there will be a lot to do for both my family and for Yahoo; both will require hard work and thoughtful prioritisation. However, I’m extremely energised by and dedicated to both my family and Yahoo and will do all that is necessary and more to help both thrive. The future looks extremely bright on both fronts.

Myers believes the Yahoo CEO demonstrates to women that you can be in a high position and have children, and there’s choice about how you can do it. While some mothers choose to take their full parental leave, for example, others may choose to take less time, Myers points out, and while some women may be the breadwinners in the family, others may not.

“How leaders integrate their work and their home-life, everybody watches that,” Myers says. “She’s role modelling that, yes, you can have children and a successful career.”

Myers says often low workplace morale comes from people feeling like they don’t have a choice — instead, people want the respect to be trusted to get the work done and manage their personal lives.

“Those CEOs that are role-modelling different ways to show up gives comfort and assurance to other workers that they can live an integrated life, too,” Myers says.

Some, however, would argue that Mayer is not, in fact, a realistic role model.

“We all applaud [Mayer],” Anne-Marie Slaughter told the Associated Press in 2012 following the news of Mayer’s first pregnancy. “But she’s superhuman, rich, and in charge. She isn’t really a realistic role model for hundreds of thousands of women who are trying to figure out how you make it to the top AND have a family at the same time.”

Others do see Mayer as a role model, but consider her leave announcement as setting a negative example.

Following her first pregnancy, Mayer increased Yahoo’s parental leave policy to eight weeks paid leave for any Yahoo employee that has a new child while employed at Yahoo and an additional eight weeks paid leave for birth mothers. But in light of the recent news some wonder, what good is generous parental leave if your top people don’t take it?


Mayer is a self-proclaimed workaholic — “I like to work,” the then Google vice president who famously sleeps only a few hours a night and doesn’t “really believe in burnout” said during a 2005 keynote talk at Stanford University  — but some say loving work and not wanting to take time off aren’t the only considerations for the CEO of a major company.

“When a senior executive, female or male, skimps on leave, it sets a very bad example for others in the company who may well feel that, should they take the full amount on paper, they will be seen as less committed, less dedicated, or less competent,” Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, tells Business Insider.

She notes that, according to data from the Department of Labour analysed by Abt Associates, nearly 1 in 4 employed mothers return to work within two weeks of childbirth.

Extending parental leave policies isn’t enough. “People need to see that there will not be repercussions for taking it, and often there’s a subtle message given, ‘Yes, this is the time we have, and you will certainly be sorry if you take it,” Bravo says.

Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of the 600-person ads and pages team, previously told Business Insider that he strongly encourages all his dads and mums to take their full leave, and he’s well known throughout Facebook for belief that the true test of a leader is how long they can be away from work. 

“It’s really irresponsible for any member of the company, parent or otherwise, to have information or an ability that [nobody else has], because that means it’s a liability to the company,” he says. “If you’re a single point of failure, especially in an engineering organisation like Facebook, that’s strictly a bad thing.”

That’s why he and many executives like him at Facebook take the full four months of paid parental leave offered at Facebook, which the company has found encourages others to take leave, too.

Additionally, for her most recent child, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki took 14 of the 18 weeks of paid maternity leave that Google offers — employees there report on Glassdoor that they feel supported in their wish to take full leave.

“I took paternity leave last year and it was great! Everyone was very supportive. My teammates picked up the slack with no complaints, and my director insisted that I take the full leave that we are allowed. Not only is the policy generous, but the atmosphere at Google is such that you can take the full leave and not hurt your career,” wrote one employee.  “I took Paternity leave three times while at Google. Every time it was seamless and very generous!!” wrote another.

As Bravo notes, “Everyone is special and no one is indispensable, and you design work that way.”

NOW WATCH: The 3 people Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer leans on for advice

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