The Internet was on fire yesterday: not only has Yahoo! named Marissa Mayer, a (relatively) young woman, as its new CEO, but—gasp!—she’s pregnant. Nerds and feminists alike wondered whether she can turn Yahoo! around, whether she’s being set up to get pushed off the glass cliff, and whether her pregnancy will interfere with her new role. My first thought was: will Mayer continue to blaze trails for women from her new position, or will she pull the ladder up behind her? There are already some hints that it could be option two.
Many women felt a boost of optimism from the historic nature of this appointment. TechCrunch postulated that she may be the first pregnant Fortune 500 CEO. And even if she weren’t expecting, there are few women at the helm of large tech companies, so adding another is still a pretty big deal. (The number of women running a Fortune 500 company jumped 5 percent yesterday, from nineteen to twenty.)
But will she help make progress like hers possible for other women? That’s an open question. Remember that Atlantic article by Ann-Marie Slaughter a few weeks ago about work-family balance? One of Slaughter’s key goals for creating a work environment that’s more family-friendly is to get women into positions of power. She wrote, “The best hope for improving the lot of all women…is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 woman senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders.” It would seem, then, that just having Mayer in the job would necessarily lead to greater gender equality.
But the problem with Slaughter’s hypothesis is that this form of “trickle-down feminism,” as coined by Tressie McMillan Cottom, may not in fact trickle down. In her exclusive interview with Fortune announcing the pregnancy, Mayer was already talking tough about working through her maternity leave. “I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” she told Fortune. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
That may be easy for her to say, but her behavior will inevitably become the model for what’s considered the norm for all the women working under her. If the boss is only out a few weeks and doesn’t even take real time off of work, why should a lower-down pregnant employee expect that she could take the full twelve (unpaid) weeks allotted to her by the FMLA and not raise a few eyebrows?
The problem is not that Mayer doesn’t care about women’s equality. It’s that because she’s achieved so much, she seems to assume there are boundless opportunities for all women, which they just have to take advantage of like she did. This is crystal clear in a short interview she did with Makers about not being a feminist:
Here’s the transcript of what she says: