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female executives

Yahoo CEO Marissa MayerROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters

An unexpected debate is dominating water-cooler discussion in Silicon Valley: How long should a CEO's maternity leave be?

Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer gave birth to a baby boy on Monday, less than four months after joining the struggling Internet company. But Ms. Mayer's subsequent decision to take just a week or two of maternity leave has raised questions rarely asked in an industry where most of the top bosses are men. Indeed, by Tuesday, some industry columnists were chastising Ms. Mayer for setting an unrealistic standard for other female executives.

But in reality, Ms. Mayer's situation isn't just supremely unique, it also exposes the often vast differences in perception between male and female executives.

"Above all, it's a personal choice," said Leslie Carter, vice-president of marketing for Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. "If she's in a very senior leadership role, she's probably not going to take six months or a year maternity leave, but no one should be making policies about when women should be coming in and out of the work force.

"How different is the conversation if it's a male CEO having a medical procedure and coming back after a week?"

On average, maternity leave lengths tend to vary greatly by region, and are usually shorter in the United States than in Canada. And thanks to ubiquitous mobile technology, it is no longer a binary option between working and not working. Ms. Carter said she took four months away from the office after the birth of her first daughter, but decided to remain engaged in her job during much of that time.

"I was running three days after my first, so I was ready to come back, and it worked for me," she said. "But that's not to say it would be the right decision for everyone."

Ms. Mayer is, in many ways, an anomaly in the tech sector. She is one of only a handful of female CEOs in the industry's biggest companies, alongside such executives as Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard Co. and Ginni Rometty of IBM.

At 37, Ms. Mayer is also one of the youngest CEOs of any major company in any industry. As with most corporate executives, she is supported by myriad assistants and a management team. Yahoo's board was also aware Ms. Mayer was pregnant when they hired her. Indeed, Ms. Mayer announced the news of her pregnancy and her hiring on the same day.

But beyond her age and leadership position, Ms. Mayer is also unique by virtue of the company she is running. Once an Internet powerhouse, Yahoo has struggled for years to compete with more profitable adversaries such as Google Inc. (Ms. Mayer's previous employer). Her hiring this summer was intended by the company's board of directors to spark a turnaround, rather than simply maintain the status quo. That, in turn, meant Ms. Mayer's tenure was almost certainly bound to entail long hours and hard work, even by executive-level standards.

"Being CEO means being in constant firefighting mode," said Beatrix Dart, associate dean at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "Being away without staying in the loop means someone else will step up to fill the void."

Online chat Thursday, Oct. 4 at 1 p.m. ET

Join us on Thursday, Oct. 4 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. ET for our online discussion on the issue of how you manage a career and life with children.

Globe Careers will be joined by Zuleika Sgro, the manager of talent management services & HR business Partner with in Toronto, and Greg Conner, vice-president of Human Resources with LEAGUE Financial Partners in Victoria, B.C. Both are also contributors to the weekly Nine To Five column.

They will talk about Yahoo CEO's Marissa Mayer's decision, help address questions about maternity leave, and how you can work with your employer to make having kids and a job more manageable.

If you would like to submit questions or thoughts in advance of the discussion e-mail Globe Careers.

When the discussion is launched you will be able to click on the Comment Now button below to send in your thoughts or questions.

For a mobile version, please click here.