Marissa Mayer became the CEO of Yahoo in 2012 when she was 28 weeks pregnant. After giving birth to a baby boy in October of that year, she took two weeks of maternity leave, prompting criticism from women who worried that her decision would reflect badly on working moms who took more time away from the office.
“I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” Mayer had said to Fortune when first announcing her pregnancy. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
But in a blog post written after childbirth for the Lean In movement—which encourages professional women to “pursue their ambitions”—Mayer explained her decision as the byproduct of extreme circumstances surrounding her career shift:
“After 13 years of really hard work at Google, I had been envisioning a glorious six-month maternity leave. However, if I took the new job, a long leave couldn’t happen. The responsibilities were too big, and time was of the essence—it just wouldn’t be fair to the company, the employees, the board, or the shareholders for me to be in the role, but out for an extended period of time.”
Two different quotes, two different stories: One in which Mayer portrays herself a busy bee who simply wants to keep working, the other in which she yearns for a luxurious leave but has to sacrifice it for the sake of the job. Which Mayer was telling the truth?
We may have just learned the answer.
In a Tuesday Tumblr post announcing that she and her husband, Zachary Bogue, are expecting identical twin girls to arrive in December, Mayer, once again, announced plans to take a brief maternity leave and, once again, cited concerns with the business to explain her decision:
“Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.”
If Mayer were a mid-level employee who had never made public comments about the struggles facing professional women, her decision to take a truncated maternity leave wouldn’t be worthy of comment in and of itself. Working women can approach their policies however they choose, Mayer included.
But Mayer is the figurehead for a company in an industry renowned for demanding workplaces that struggle to retain female employees and, as such, many working moms see her maternity leave as fair game for criticism. Once again, Mayer’s critics are saying that her decision to take such a short leave sends the wrong message to women: Give up maternity leave for your career.
This is far from the first time Mayer has taken flak for how she has handled her position as an executive and mother. After building a nursery next to her office at Yahoo so she could be closer to her own son, Mayer abruptly ended telecommuting for hundreds of staffers in February 2013. Critics, many of them internal, were quick to point out the hypocrisy.
As one husband of a working Yahoo mom wrote to tech journalist Kara Swisher, “I wonder what would happen if my wife brought our kids and nanny to work and set ‘em up in the cube next door?”
For Mayer, the announcement was unfortunately timed. Days later, the PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America was aired on television, featuring an old interview with Mayer in which she eschewed the label of “feminist” because she doesn’t have a “militant drive” or a “chip on the shoulder.”
“There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women and I think that there’s more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy,” Mayer added.
The comments sparked the usual cycle of debate that comes whenever a public figure disparages the F-word but the “positive energy” remark was perhaps more revealing in its similarity to the ideology of her former Google coworker and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, who has encouraged women to adopt an almost relentless positivity in the face of broader institutional obstacles.
Indeed, Sandberg and Mayer are often mentioned in the same breath, although the former seems more focused on theory and the latter on practice.
In April 2013, Mayer earned praise by doubling paid maternity leave at Yahoo from eight weeks to 16 weeks. But her PR crises around maternity leave and telecommuting were quickly replaced by criticisms of her turnaround plan for Yahoo, which culminated in a scathing New York Times article in December of last year.
Now, Mayer’s approach to professional motherhood is under the microscope once more. Mayer was scolded the first time she took a truncated maternity leave but, this time around, the criticism is nearly as loud as Yahoo’s new logo.
On the popular parenting website BabyCenter, Joanna Venditti asks the question at the heart of much of the noise: “Although Mayer recently extended maternity and paternity leave for the employees of Yahoo, what message is Mayer sending to her employees by not taking the allotted time off herself?”
In a vacuum, Mayer’s decision would not affect other women at Yahoo or elsewhere. But in the context of a competitive tech industry, many critics are predicting that Mayer’s announcement will alter perceptions of female employees who do not want to “stay in the rhythm of things” after giving birth.
Motherhood is already a sore point in the tech industry. In a feature for Fortune, Kieran Snyder conducted a survey of 716 women who had left the industry. Over 10 percent of them cited maternity leave policy as a factor in their decision. Others said that a “lack of flexible work arrangements” and an “unsupportive work environment” led them to realize that motherhood would be incongruous with their career choice.
Yahoo’s maternity policy may technically be more generous now than it was before but Mayer’s actions as CEO could have an effect on Yahoo’s work environment. The company’s leadership is 77 percent male, which lends Mayer’s words as a female CEO an especially over-determined weight.
Anne Weisberg of the Families and Work Institute in New York told The Guardian that, as a corporate leader, Mayer’s choice was “hugely symbolic” for her own employees and others in the tech industry.
“She’s a role model and I think she should take whatever Yahoo’s parental leave is—the mark of a great leader is that they have a strong team and don’t need to be there all the time themselves,” added Weisberg.
“Please take your full maternity leave,” pleaded Ellen Bravo of the organization Family Values @ Work on CNBC.
Bravo added that “[t]here's a real danger that those who take the leave allowed on paper will be looked at as less committed and dedicated—and less competent at time management.”
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics already suggests that women feel pressure, whether financial or professional, to cut their maternity leave short. From 2006 to 2008, nearly a third of employed women did not report taking any maternity leave after their last pregnancy.
Mayer does have her defenders. CNN commentator Mel Robbins argued Wednesday that the CEO is being held to a sexist double standard: “Male CEOs are entitled to paternity leave, and we don't get out the pitchforks when they choose not to take it.”
But during what should otherwise be a joyous occasion, the reaction to Mayer’s announcement has been mostly one of concern and alarm. Prominent tech blogger Anil Dash, for example, urged Mayer on Twitter to issue a statement encouraging other Yahoo employees to “take their full leave when having kids.”
Others, like Daily Beast contributor and OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter, are worried that Mayer’s business-as-usual attitude about her pregnancy does not correspond to the biological realities of having twins, which are often born premature and require additional care.
There are also the medical risks of abbreviated maternity leave to consider. A 2013 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law linked shortened maternity leave to an increased risk of postpartum depression. Data from 13 European counties has also shown that women who receive more thorough maternity benefits are less likely to be depressed.
Of course, Mayer’s announcement could merely be an attempt to quell potential investor fears during what is, of her own admission, a “unique time” for Yahoo. As was the case with her first pregnancy, there’s no way to know for certain which version of Mayer wrote this announcement: the embattled CEO or the Lean In storyteller who could still want that “glorious” lengthy leave.
Is Mayer perpetuating the pressure that women in the tech industry already feel to put motherhood on the backburner, or is she herself subject to that pressure?
The most realistic—but least satisfying—answer is probably both.