There's an interesting subtext arising from Yahoo's having selected a woman in her third-trimester (Marissa Mayer, whose first child, a son, is due in October) as its new CEO. Eagle-eyed Tom Stewart has directed us to a good piece from strategy+business, "Gender Bias in Leader Selection," published in December 2010. The article is based on research conducted by Susanne Bruckmüller at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Nyla R. Branscombe at the University of Kansas. The term that it named has suddenly become common parlance: glass cliffs. I will explain...
But before we get to that, this morning's news about Mayer's selection: "'My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it,' Mayer said," as reported widely, including on MSNBC.
OK. Unlike most working mothers -- and as many have quickly pointed out, Mayer has the resources to hire a staff to manage home, baby, work, and all that comes with being a human mother in a super-tech society. If she's nursing, someone can hand her the baby and then take him away for burping, changing, and rocking to sleep. If she wants to pump, a Silicon Valley friend is surely to have the most high-tech equipment that she can lend her -- or, as an engineer, she'll invent a new one herself. If she needs to be "present" for a meeting, her company can provide super hi-def video conferencing. If she needs to attend a meeting in person (how quaint), a driver can be waiting on either end, eliminating the extra effort required to think about whether she might have a dead battery caused by having failed to close the car door properly after hauling out the car seat with sleeping baby, the diaper bag, her laptop, her briefcase, and the pile of papers that she just threw on the seat next to her, not to mention having to think through how close she can park -- or how late the train will be, thus cutting a few minutes off the commute. Laundry? Someone else can be responsible for the endless loads that babies bring with them. Meals? Trips to the dry cleaner because the baby is guaranteed to spit up right after she's gotten dressed? Need I be more explicit?
Don't misunderstand. I am thrilled that 37-year-old Mayer has been selected for the Yahoo post -- and I wish all new mothers a small army to help. Mayer's appointment signals another peak that's been summited in the glare of the cameras, er, bloggers. Being punished for providing another contribution to the continuation of the species is ... no words for the anger this evokes in those of us who've been sidelined, penalized, and insulted for committing the crime of working while being pregnant or the mother of a newborn. And in the interest of self-relevation, I speak as someone who took five weeks off when my first child was born and took virtually no time off when my second was born (we'd just signed our first book contract) -- but note that I was working in my own company and had the ability to do whatever I wanted. (Comment to former pregnant employees: I'm proud that we were able to provide paid maternity leave; my only regret is that it couldn't have been longer.)
So that's a lot of what's roiling around in my and other minds about Mayer's appointment and announcement. But before I dismount the podium, I feel compelled to restate what I've seen elsewhere and which was my very first thought: You just don't know how you're going to respond when your baby is born. As important as work seems beforehand, it pales in the face of the human being who will change your perception of just about everything. A meeting as compared with an embrace of that little person? Strategy in dealing with a pesky investor vs. the feeling of that tender skin against your cheek? Let's check in again on that in early November, Marissa. What you have to say about the experience of being a working mother has a major megaphone and your words will be well heard.
OK, back to Tom Stewart's prompt that got this post to happen. The article he references draws on a research experiment that looked at how people might choose leaders when situations are described in different terms. The result? The subjects chose women over men to lead in troubled situations. People recognize, it would appear, that turnarounds require good relationship skills more than they do sharpened pencils (implements that you may remember -- they have graphite in them, used to made of wood and painted yellow, many of us liked the #2s). The "glass cliff" comes in because when women are chosen for these posts: they're put in very precarious positions, ones on which it's very easy to loose one's footing. (Remember Carol Bartz, former CEO of Autodesk who tried and failed at Yahoo, reportedly ultimately being fired over the phone by the Yahoo board chairman?)
Now to the so-far unspoken but obvious subtext: isn't all good business about relationships rather than iron fists? About getting people to get along rather than telling underlings what to do? Aren't people in happy workplaces more likely to get things done than mean awful ones? Only our own prejudices stand in the way of hiring more women -- who, before I get this comment, are not the only ones with good relationship skills. I've met my share of great CEOs who happen to be of the male persuasion, people who really know how to bring people together. The poor ones I've met are precisely the opposite and fit the typical stereotype of the successful male CEO -- arrogant, head bashing, narcissistic, and often hypocritical. Just check the business page headlines (or should that be the white-collar crime report)? But that's another topic altogether.
--PS: I didn't realize when I wrote the title to this post that there's a website dedicated to Feminism 3.0, and even one for Feminism 4.0. Rather than just keep escalating, I'm sticking with the old-fashioned 3.0.