Pando

Marissa Mayer may not have saved Yahoo, but she proved how strong a working mom can be

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 26, 2016

From The Gender Wars Desk

When Marissa Mayer first took over as Yahoo’s CEO-- while pregnant with her first child-- there was a lot of debate over whether that was a reckless decision by the board.

For a while, it seemed her every move was scrutinized through the lens of being a new mother.

The debate over her own decisions around maternity leave was viewed as her passing judgement over what all women should do. A throwaway statement about her baby being “easy” was seen as a punch in the gut for mothers everywhere. And when she changed the rules around Yahoo employees being allowed to work from home, it was interpreted as an anti-mother stance. How dare a mother do such a thing!

Mayer was living publicly what 60% of new mothers live privately: A specific form of bias known as the “Maternal Wall” where mothers have to prove their dedication to their job all over again, and are locked in a double-bind of “You can’t be a good employee if you aren’t constantly available” and “You can’t be a good mother if you aren’t constantly available.”

Here’s what I think her greatest accomplishment of the last four years was: We also got to watch the most high profile female tech CEO largely overcome that particular bias. She still gets treated differently as a woman-- how many men who got snubbed at Sun Valley made the news? But by the time Mayer was going into labor with her twins, and was on CNBC defending a proxy fight against her copy, the narrative had shifted from Mayer the mother to Mayer the leader.

Now, sure, that characterization isn’t always positive. If we were going to have a working mother CEO role model in this industry, it’d be nice if she had won. It’d be nice if she was leading a powerful and surging company not being the final caretaker of a broken one. She was an imperfect role model in some ways, just as Ellen Pao was an imperfect plaintiff for the Valley’s most high profile discrimination case.

But while the press tears her apart, Mayer is still widely respected among Valley leaders. A lot of that has to do with how hard she worked to have any view that she was disabled as a mother removed from the dialog.

Max Levchin -- a former Yahoo board member-- put this well at Pandoland, when he said “I respect who she is and how she is but also what she represents.” He continued, “She gave birth to twins and  then traded emails with me about a feature of a product she was launching in a week… and that’s not out of character.”

Emily Chang of BloombergTV interviewed Mayer yesterday and said she hesitated to ask “the mother question” but was glad she did.

Mayer said that first and foremost kids teach you about yourself and that she has learned she “[loves] to work [and] have a big impact.” She also talked about how she talks to her kids about why work is so important to her, sharing a story of her almost four year old saying mommy was going to go do her board call, he was going to go kick the ball and then they’d meet up for dinner.

I can’t relate to a lot of Mayer’s career or life, but I could relate to that.

I spent so much of my 20s and 30s terrified to have kids because I believed the “opt out revolution” bullshit that was prevalent in the media when I started my career. A narrative that said (erroneously, it turned out) that high powered women just biologically changed and wanted to leave their jobs once they became mothers.

This past weekend, my son, Eli, and I went on a little California one-night staycation and we were swimming in a pool. Eli spent an elaborate few hours enacting some imaginative play that was a mashup of an episode of Octonauts and my daily life. He had to rescue some polar bear cubs from shrinking polar ice caps and then make sure they were rocked and put to bed before taking out his imaginary laptop on a raft and and furiously typing away until the cubs woke up.  The scene cycled back and forth between attentively taking care of the cubs, and once they were asleep or at school, furiously working.

If your kids mirror your actions back to you, I was pretty pleased with what I saw. The laptop wasn’t out when the kids were up. And yet, the kids were clear that mom’s work was an equally important part of her day.

I’m not trying to shame stay at home moms at all. I wish I had more hours a day to spend with my kids, and I can totally understand how rewarding that must be. But many of us don’t have a choice but to work, and many more derive fulfillment from it, even after having kids. There’s nothing wrong with that either.


Mayer may not have saved Yahoo, but she sent an important and inspiring message to young women nonetheless. As we saw from the “cheerleader turned engineer” storylines early in her career, she’s difficult to pigeonhole. The last four years haven’t turned out as she would have liked, but she proved that motherhood itself wasn’t the biggest obstacle she had to overcome.