Last week, Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer got plenty of flak when she announced plans to take limited time off when she gives birth to twins later this year. Some critics have argued that to show her commitment to women, Mayer should have taken the generous maternity leave that she created at Yahoo. I think this argument is disingenuous, and missed a much bigger point about women in the C-suite.
We do not know yet if Mayer will succeed with her turnaround plan of Yahoo. Let’s assume for a moment that she won’t (I really hope she will). Years of research on stereotypes suggest that the evaluation of women, especially mothers, plummets when they do not play by the standard of each profession. Is Mayer’s responsibility to redesign the rules that govern the relationship between CEO and shareholders? Why is nobody offended by the fact that none of the male CEOs take generous paternity leave?
It is a common practice that anything related to the CEO’s health and performance on the job has to be disclosed to the board and shareholders. For example, last year, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon announced he had throat cancer and would continue working as he underwent treatment; several months later, Dimon reported he had been declared cancer-free.
As CEO, Mayer has sent a message of assurance to her board, investors and employees that even though she has “exciting news to share” (as she wrote in her blog), it wouldn’t take her out of the CEO role. While some might argue that the perk of having a nursery onsite is an unfair advantage available only to top executives like Mayer, this criticism fails to recognize her visibility as a working mother in a rare CEO role.
Even if she never says so directly, Mayer’s actions as a female CEO makes big strides for women at a time when less than 5% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are female, and career disruptions (among them, having children) have proven to be impediments to advancement. When Mayer returns from maternity leave, her twin daughters will reportedly be in the nursery next to her office. It is a workable balance for one of the only 23 women CEOs in the S&P 500—and one that blazes an important trail for more women in the C-suite.
Recent research has shown that career disruption — six months or more out of work — costs women in terms of future earnings, making as much as 30% less than male counterparts. Many women with advanced degrees interrupt their career to spend time with their family. What we do not know is whether they do so because they expect to make limited progress anyway in their career, or whether because they prefer so. Mayer’s decision to bring motherhood into the C-suite furthers the cause of female leadership and possibly changes expectations of many women.
In the larger picture, Mayer’s shortened maternity leave and onsite nursery are more important for both her leadership than shortsighted demands that she practice what she preaches by taking an extended family leave. Mayer has taken the demanding job of overhauling Yahoo. This challenge requires continuity to generate the kind of momentum that leads to lasting change.
Paola Sapienza is a professor of finance and Zell Center Faculty Fellow at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.