It was a little over three years ago when Yahoo said that Marissa Mayer, 37, would take over as the company's new chief executive officer. As a young female, she was already defying stereotypes by running a technology company. Then, a few days later, Ms. Mayer announced that she was pregnant.
The fact that Yahoo's board appointed her while knowing about her pregnancy seemed like a pivotal moment for the advancement of women in business. I wrote in these pages that, fingers-crossed, this event would serve as a turning point for mothers in the corporate world.
Now, three years later, Ms. Mayer, still CEO, announced that she's having twins. Rather than applauding her decision to have children while maintaining her high-profile role, the backlash has focused on her decision to take just two weeks maternity leave. The only way a CEO could take less maternity leave, according to a Washington Post blog, would be to deliver triplets while on mute on a conference call. Her short maternity leave seems like a red herring considering that paid maternity leave hardly exists in the United States, unless you work for a company that voluntarily offers it. (Yahoo itself offers 16 weeks.)
So am I still optimistic that Ms. Mayer's decision to be a mother of three under the age of three while running a high-profile company will move the needle on our perception of women in business? Not as much.
While I'm delighted that this second pregnancy didn't produce the same shock and awe that the first one did in the news media, indicating that it is within the realm of possibility to be a high-profile CEO and pregnant, most view Ms. Mayer as an edge case. She is an outlier who – owing to her unique position and wealth – can manage it all. Some media commentators have argued that it's even easier for CEOs to be mothers than the average worker.
In an interview with Time magazine, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who is also a mother of five, observed that CEOs have the management skills to delegate at home and at work. Since there are only 23 women with the title of CEO on the S&P 500, it would be challenging to come to any conclusive verdict on their home management skills. But the idea that only the most successful can have it all leaves the rest of us struggling to prove ourselves, according to Jennifer Reynolds president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, an advocacy group based in Toronto.
"I do think perceptions are changing with respect to women in leadership roles, but quite frankly, the pace is slow, far too slow. We need to stop questioning women's ability to lead in business and in politics, and just expect them to be there," Ms. Reynolds said. To do so, the workforce needs to modernize their views and recognize that both men and women have parental responsibilities.
"Those parental responsibilities don't make them less talented or committed to their careers. They just require some flexibility and a long-term view on talent. I think we are long overdue when it comes to redefining gender stereotypes around parental roles. Those biases are holding women back from leadership roles and forcing men to reduce or downplay their responsibilities at home," she said.
To help combat these perceptions, Women in Capital Markets, with the support of Canada's six largest banks, offers a program called Return to Bay Street, which helps experienced professional women who have taken a hiatus from the capital markets industry to resume their careers. Successful candidates of the program win a four-month paid contract at one of Canada's major banks, a $5,000 credit toward an educational program and a year-long mentorship to help them get back on track. In addition to benefiting the candidate, it also helps raise awareness in the community that moms, even those who have been out of the work force for years, have much to offer professionally. It's a slow way to alter perceptions, but it's something.
Perhaps one CEO having twins won't radically change the way we view women in business. Ms. Mayer is under no obligation, to her shareholders or the public, to defend her truncated maternity leave, to explain who will care for her children or to answer whether or not these decisions make her a good or bad mother.
"We don't ask male CEOs any of those questions. Why do we continue to interrogate professional women on their personal lives?" Ms. Reynolds asked.
It's time to stop trying to turn Ms. Mayer into a feminist or anti-feminist icon. She's just a CEO with kids, like many other (male) CEOs. Once we accept that, perhaps people will stop being so incensed and start accepting women's choices, whatever they may be.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler