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Marissa Mayer, who is expecting a baby in three months, has just been named CEO of Yahoo. (NOAH BERGER/REUTERS)
Marissa Mayer, who is expecting a baby in three months, has just been named CEO of Yahoo. (NOAH BERGER/REUTERS)

women@work

The baby bump pushes up against the glass ceiling Add to ...

In five to 10 years, I want to look back and cite this week as a turning point for career women , when pregnancy no longer constituted a liability in gaining promotion to the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. This vision of the future comes with the news that Yahoo appointed Marissa Mayer – a 37-year old Google veteran who happens to be six months pregnant – as its new CEO.

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So much of this story appears to fly in the face of convention. In addition to being pregnant, she is considered young for the high-profile posting (and she’s attractive to boot; San Francisco Magazine once called her the “gorgeously geeky Googler”). Now, Ms. Mayer can add chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company to her growing list of accomplishments – possibly the first such CEO to be pregnant.

For me, this feels like a pivotal moment. Is the corporate world finally coming to terms with what many women have been saying all along, that holding a high-powered position and starting a family aren’t mutually exclusive?

Yahoo’s board coveted Ms. Mayer for several reasons. She boasts an outstanding career from the time she graduated from Stanford. She joined Google as its twentieth employee and took responsibility for many of its flagship services, including Google Maps, Google Earth and local search, in the process amassing a $300-million (U.S.) fortune.

Ideally, Ms. Mayer will serve as a role model for other pregnant, senior executives eager to take on a new challenge. Women and the business world need to see this as proof that pregnancy and promotions can go hand-in-hand.

“The real game changer here, as Ms. Mayer revealed, is that none of the Yahoo directors, had any real concerns about hiring a pregnant CEO,” said Jo Miller, chief executive officer of Women’s Leadership Coaching, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that works mainly in the high-tech sector.

Ms. Mayer , who publicly commended Yahoo’s board for their “evolved thinking,” advises other pregnant senior executives to tackle stereotypical assumptions head on. If a pregnant woman wants to reach for that promotion, it might, unfortunately, be necessary for her to assertively counteract the perception that she is planning to take a step back, career wise.

Ms. Mayer, for example, stated that she intends to take only a few weeks off with her newborn and work throughout her maternity leave. “My advice is to take control of the narrative,” she said. “Reveal the pregnancy sooner and at the same time, clearly communicate your preparedness and competence for the next role.”

Although business women may have slapped a few communal high-fives about Ms. Mayer’s situation, workplace discrimination continues to persist. Deciding when to reveal the news of a pregnancy can be fraught with anxiety for many.

In Canada, a woman carries no legal obligation to disclose a pregnancy, whether or not she is up for a promotion or a new job, said Robert Centa, a partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP in Toronto, where he practices business litigation and public law, including executive employment.

Yet keeping the news quiet for fear of a negative response is a bad strategy. “If you work for an employer that will discriminate against you because you are pregnant, then you probably also work for an employer who will engage in reprisals once they find out that you are and you didn’t tell them,” Mr. Centa said.

Others view the Yahoo example as significant for women, but far from a surefire sign of progress.

“I wish one hire were a game changer, but culture and the workplace move at a much slower pace. But such a high-profile example will go a long way in raising consciousness among employers and confidence among individual women,” said Ann Daly, an Austin, Tex.-based author and career coach focused on the advancement of women.

Marlene Puffer, a mother of three and managing editor at financial services firm BCA Research in Montreal, agrees.

“It is hard to change the perceptions of those hiring managers who might assume that women’s attitudes toward work will shift after they have children,” said Ms. Puffer, who previously worked at Pacific Investment Management Co., Legg Mason Canada and RBC Dominion Securities.

Ms. Puffer noted that women at senior levels likely have it easier because they can afford high-quality child care and often have greater access to flexible work arrangements.

It’s a point that has to be acknowledged in the news of Ms. Mayer’s appointment. She’s wealthy (The Wall Street Journal reported that as Yahoo CEO she will receive up to $100-million in compensation, stock and bonuses over the next five years) and so can afford an army of nannies; she’s the boss, and so can dictate her working hours; and she is taking only a few weeks of leave – the equivalent of a long vacation

It’s a point that has to be acknowledged in the news of Ms. Mayer’s appointment. She’s wealthy, and so can afford an army of nannies; she’s the boss, and so can dictate her working hours; and she is taking only a few weeks of leave – the equivalent of a long vacation.

Ann-Marie Slaughter touched on this issue in her recent essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in The Atlantic magazine. Some women do manage to hit the career and family jackpot, but they are the outliers, and can’t be held up as role models. (In a tweet about Ms. Mayer, Ms. Slaughter noted, “Some women can, absolutely. And I applaud her! But she makes my point. She’s superhuman, rich, and in charge. Still need change!”)

I believe the decision by Yahoo’s board signals that change is afoot. Many women have a lot riding on Ms. Mayer’s success at Yahoo. Let’s pray she can pull this off.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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