05.20.134:45 AM ET

Is Marissa Mayer Overscrutinized?

From her maternity leave to her acquisition strategy—including her move to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion—the Yahoo CEO’s business decisions and personal life are under the magnifying glass far more than those of male CEOs, says Jessica Grose.

Ever since Marissa Mayer’s new job as CEO of Yahoo and her pregnancy were announced nearly simultaneously last July, every one of her personal and executive decisions has been picked over by a million rubberneckers. First, there was the statement: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” which spawned a thousand frothing blog posts for her and against her. Then she followed through on that promise and took only two weeks off and it sparked another spasm of praise and fury. After that, news broke that she built a nursery next to her office at the same time as she was putting an end to Yahoo’s telecommuting policy, which led to widespread criticism of Mayer as anti-family and out of touch; then she announced that Yahoo was expanding maternity leave to 16 weeks and paternity leave to eight weeks, which inspired mostly cheers. Now people are complaining that her new acquisition strategy will destroy employee morale.

Whatever one thinks about Mayer, it’s undeniable that no other current CEO, male or female, is scrutinized in the same nitpicky, ad hominem way. Are there articles about how much maternity leave Sam’s Club CEO Roz Brewer took? Or what parental leave policies Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi has instituted? Brigid Schulte at The Washington Post points out that numerous male CEOs—including Best Buy’s Hubert Joly and Bank of America’s Brian T. Moynihan—have scaled back their company’s telecommuting policies with no public blowback. It is Mayer’s job to do what she believes is best for her company and her board, not what the peanut gallery thinks is best. So is this kind of obsessive tracking of Mayer’s decisions going to affect her tenure as CEO? And, worse, is it also bad for the women who hope to follow in her footsteps?

The only predecessor who received as much attention as Mayer is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, says Sheelah Kolhatkar, a features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, who writes about women in the corporate world. Fiorina was in a similar position to Mayer: an attractive, telegenic woman who took over at a technology company when it was in trouble. This is such a familiar narrative for women in business that it has a name—the Glass Cliff—a term coined by British academics to refer to the idea that women are often given leadership positions when companies are imperiled and the chance of failure is higher. If and when failure does occur, the female CEOs are left holding the bag.

Fiorina “got completely hyper-scrutinized in the press, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly—there was a lot of discussion of her hair and her clothes,” Kolhatkar recalls. Fiorina discusses this media attention in her memoir, Tough Choices, and how it negatively affected her at HP. When Fiorina started her tenure as CEO, she famously said there was no glass ceiling, and believed that her gender would not be an issue.

Fiorina realized she was wrong about that almost immediately. She recounts that it was “particularly painful” when the media pounced on her child-free status. They said that she had chosen not to have kids because she was too ambitious. “From the first day on,” Fiorina writes, “I could not escape the categorization of ‘Carly Fiorina, female CEO.’ Nor would I ever escape the relentless attention of the media.” If things continue in the current vein with Mayer—who, like Fiorina before her, has rejected the notion that her gender is meaningful (“I’m not a girl at Google, I’m a geek at Google,” she has said)—it’s possible that she’ll ultimately feel the same way as Fiorina: hindered by the scrutiny.

Though Mayer doesn’t have many peers in the business or tech world who receive the same amount of public attention for their choices, a reasonable parallel for Mayer would be women in politics. (Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg arguably receives as much press as Mayer, but she wrote an entire book, Lean In, about women and work-life balance, so the attention she gets on the issue of parenting at work is more understandable. Mayer has never put herself in the national dialogue in the same way.) The women who have come closest to the executive branch in recent years—Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin—have seen their hairdos, their marriages, and their progeny torn to shreds by the public. Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, says that what it comes down to with both Mayer and women politicians is unreasonable expectations. People expect women executives and women politicians to demonstrate not only expertise in their jobs but also that they understand the plight of women. “The level of disappointment in a man who puts forth a bill” that’s not family-friendly is much lower than the disappointment in a woman who does the same, Lawless says.

There is also some evidence that women are reluctant to run for office because they are hesitant to put their families through the ringer. Lawless says that while the qualitative data does not show that women avoid politics because they’re afraid of personal scrutiny, when she and her academic peers do follow-up interviews with potential female candidates—lawyers, activists, and business leaders—and ask them to elaborate about why they don’t want to run for office, “family concerns and increased scrutiny is the first thing they mention.” If that kind of glaring publicity—worse than what men receive—is keeping women from running for office, it’s feasible that it might also keep them from the C-Suite. One could picture an ambitious woman watching what Marissa Mayer has gone through and thinking, This is for the birds.

Still, I’m sympathetic to what seems to be the impulse behind the Mayer obsession: the lack of options for working parents in the United States. Pundits grouse about Mayer’s choices surrounding her own pregnancy and maternity leave because they’re frustrated that America is one of only a few countries in the entire world that does not have paid maternity leave for its citizens. Even though Mayer’s maternity leave does not directly affect them, her critics fear that the meager paid leave that they’re provided at the leisure of their employers might be taken away if they see that Mayer can work throughout her pregnancy and postpartum period. They gripe about her outlawing telecommuting while installing a nursery next to her office because they feel so embattled by the lack of affordable child care, and because they want to work and be able to see their kids—which are reasonable desires.

Mayer is the receptacle for all the upset over these issues, in part, because our politicians have been so ineffectual on this front. Lawless muses that in some ways, Mayer is more powerful than a congresswoman because Mayer can actually change policy, if only for the tiny percentage of Americans who work for her. Congress, by contrast, is in constant, depressing gridlock, especially when it comes to improving the lives of working parents.

But just because the criticism of Marissa Mayer is understandable does not make it appropriate. If every person who wrote a bloviating blog post condemning Marissa Mayer’s choices spent the same energy lobbying Washington to provide paid family leave to all workers, maybe we’d start improving the lives of regular Americans instead of making life much harder for one woman who probably doesn’t deserve it.