Who is right:  Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg?  Leadership Lessons from Working Moms

By | July 19, 2012

It isn’t every day that the newly appointed CEO of a mega-company says “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long.  And I will work throughout it.”

It’s great to see companies appointing leaders who aren’t middle-aged white males.  And it is great to see a Board of Directors recognize that someone’s vision, talent and ability to lead are more important than the fact that she might have something in addition to work in her life…like a family.  But I’m not so sure we should begin applauding this move as evidence that the glass ceiling has been shattered.  There is a leadership lesson here, for sure.  But is it a good one?

On some levels, Marissa Mayer is probably like every ambitious, driven woman I’ve ever known (other than the Twitter trending topic and the CEO thing, of course).  She’s just like me, 18 years ago.  Pregnant with a first child, women everywhere believe that having a baby is no big deal – just one more thing to juggle into the mix, a few more items on the to do list.  I remember wondering what I would do ALL DAY on maternity leave.  I even cried my last day of work before my daughter was born.  The only day I cried harder was the day I came back, after 10 weeks that flew by in a spit-up clouded haze.

So maybe her statement is the understandable naiveté of a soon-to-be first time mother.   Maybe she will regret that promise; maybe she will go from the delivery room straight to the board room. That is between her, her husband and the Yahoo Board of Directors, and it shouldn’t be used to add fuel to the fire in the never-ending Mommy Wars.

No one would care if a newly-appointed male CEO was expecting a baby…it wouldn’t even be a topic of conversation, much less a headline. And few women are CEOs before they sunset their child-bearing years.  So what’s the fuss? Didn’t we settle this issue somewhere around the time that Diane Keaton starred in Baby Boom? Didn’t Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg establish the Working Mom 2.0 profile a few weeks ago when she told the world it was OK to leave work to be home for dinner?

It is hard to know if Marissa Mayer’s appointment despite her pregnancy is a victory for working women everywhere.   Or if her commitment to working throughout her maternity leave sets an impossible standard that all women will feel pressured to emulate.

It is easy to chalk this one up to personal choice.  But when you are talking about C-level leaders, their personal choices take on greater significance.  Leadership is demonstrated, not discussed – what you do is more important than what you say.  So Yahoo and Marissa Mayer can tell employees that they can, should or even must take their vacation, their parental leave or their sabbaticals.  But will anyone believe her? Or will there be an unspoken pressure, at Yahoo, or among working women everywhere, to wear their shortened maternity leave or unused vacation days like a badge of honor?

Who do you think is right:  Marissa Mayer, or Sheryl Sandberg? Let the debate begin.


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