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Yes, I Can Walk in These

Blame it on the Media

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When you work in the PR business, one tends to hear the following: “Blame it on the media.” Most of the time, I find myself on the defensive, having been a journalist for many years. Every once in a while, though, I find an occasion to, well, ‘blame it on the media.’ This is one of those occasions.

Not well-buried in the mountains of coverage about Marissa Mayer and her appointment as Yahoo CEO, was, at times, a slight difference – both in tone and tendency – in how the news was covered simply because she is a woman.

As a reminder, here is the timeline of events:

  • On July 16,  Yahoo announced Marissa Mayer as its new CEO
  • Later that same day, she tweeted to announce her pregnancy
  • That evening, the Fortune exclusive posted online featuring the announcement

To be fair, much of the coverage was, well, fair, but since blogs are really only provocative when pointing out what isn’t fair, here goes: Some of the initial coverage – exemplified here in a piece on MSN Money (written by a woman, btw) focused on a few points about Marissa which I don’t recall seeing in similar announcements of a male CEO:

  • “She lives in a fancy penthouse in the Four Seasons in San Francisco and has been known for her love of cupcakes, The New York Times reports.” [though, I personally, didn’t  actually see either mentioned in the NYT piece]
  • “Mayer is a fashionista with a love of Oscar de la Renta clothes and a personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman. De La Renta told Vogue that she’s one of his biggest customers.”

The Vogue profile (March 2012) paints Marissa as an incredibly smart and regular professional in her thirties who shops sales and signed up for Weight Watchers online – appropriate for a profile in a fashion magazine, but less so in a newsworthy business announcement.

Once her pregnancy was announced, the conversation quickly evolved from her qualifications and choice in designers to whether she could lead a Fortune 500 company AND have a baby. The question soon dominated the coverage, especially when she revealed that she only plans “to take a few weeks.”

“My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said. Reporters and bloggers all seemed to have an opinion about if she was making the right call. Headlines included:

This transformation was significant as the media coverage of her pregnancy soon detracted from her credentials to be a CEO. Opinions ran rampant: To many, her baby would be too distracting from her job; to others, her job would be too distracting from her baby.

Regardless of what others think of her choice, having a prominent woman CEO who is also pregnant sends a great message to working women everywhere, exemplifying that one can have a career and a family. Her decision to take only a few weeks off is one that every woman has to make for herself and once made, women (and men) need to support those choices even if they are different than our own.

However, as one Slate piece touches on, what precedent does that set for other women who may not have the luxury to choose or those who choose to take more time (which they are legally entitled to do) to spend with their newborns? Will bosses start comparing pregnant employees to Marissa Mayer and question their commitment if they don’t immediately return to work?

There is no doubt that Mayer is in a unique position. As CEO she has more control over her schedule than the average employee and more resources/help that many working mothers simply cannot afford. Regardless, her decision should not impact her ability to be an effective CEO.

Her decision to join Yahoo after so many CEOs have failed also brings up the issue of the “Glass Cliff,” a term that according to Peter Cohan in Forbes refers to “the place women leaders are perched when they reach the top of a company that has been in trouble. Having broken through the glass ceiling, these women find themselves in a precarious position — making them more likely to take the blame if company results don’t improve fast.” [see also: Will Marissa Mayer Shatter The Glass Cliff?]

Glass cliffs, glass ceilings or even (designer) sunglasses, Dave McClure poses an interesting question on his blog about the shattering opportunity for Marissa and women everywhere:

“What if Marissa made it known that Yahoo would be the best tech company in the world for hiring women execs, putting women in leadership positions, and advancing the opportunities for women in the workplace (as Sheryl Sandberg is so well-known for promoting at Facebook)?”

Now, that’s the type of question and smarts that I would proudly “blame on the media” and, frankly, even thank them for it.

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America and U.S. Western Region

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