This week was a big one for women in technology. Longtime Google executive Marissa Mayer was announced as Yahoo's new CEO. Mayer, 37, becomes the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500, beating out her former boss, Google's Larry Page, 38. When the new female CEO was announced, I was thrilled -- I've kind of been a fan of Mayer for years because she's got an engineer's brain paired with strong leadership skills. I hoped that the fact that she happens to join the elite club of Fortune 500 female CEOs would be a minor footnote. For a few glorious days, it was. And then Mayer announced that she's six months pregnant.
Hold the phone. It was the other shoe that I had been afraid would drop. Mayer's femaleness was thrown into the spotlight, combined with the question of whether women really can "have it all." (I hate that phrase, by the way, because it implies that someone, somehow has "more" but, in reality, it involves having much less of any one thing.)
Now we're dealing with the fallout of Mayer's pregnancy announcement. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone's questioning Mayer's commitment to one facet of her life or another. Pundits raised the question of how much mental and physical drain occurs during the course of a normal pregnancy, not to mention the sleep deprivation associated with a newborn. Then, there's the other side of the debate: Would anyone question a male CEO's ability or his attention to his job if his wife were expecting their first baby? Does the fact that this is news relate more to a deep-seated prejudice against working mothers and female CEOs in general? Or does it perhaps reflect some of the subtle hostility women in technology face every day?
Of all Fortune 500 CEOs, only 19 --just 3.8% -- are female. The earth's population is 52% female. And those 19 female CEOs? That's a record high for the Fortune 500. But why does it have to be that way? Are women choosing their families over their career? Are childless women unfairly suffering under the weight of a cultural stigma that brands them as inferior leaders?
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Anne-Marie Slaughter recently posited that feminism has sold women a fiction: The only women who can "have it all" are either "superhuman, rich or self-employed." (Mayer, from all accounts, fits one, if not two of those criteria.) Questioning whether Mayer can perform Yahoo's CEO duties is insulting -- and not just for the other female CEOs of the world. What about the male CEOs out there? Are they fine with the implication that they are somehow less invested in their offspring than women?
Being a woman in leadership at all is kind of like being a zebra in a rodeo, but being a woman in IT leadership is like being a unicorn.
Being a female CEO at all is kind of like being a zebra in a rodeo, but being a woman in technology leadership is like being a unicorn. It's even tougher for women in technology, who are facing a super-male-dominated world. Sure, IBM's Ginni Rometty and HP's Meg Whitman are leading the charge, but they've never had the audacity to remind the world that their female reproductive parts were fully functional while serving as female CEOs.
My friends who have had babies often remark that complete strangers will reach out and touch their stomachs. It gets even weirder: The strangers then act as though they have just done the expectant mother a favor -- rather than having just invaded her personal space. The attention paid to Mayer's pregnancy feels a little like that uninvited touching.
What's more, this fixation and emphasis on Mayer's family life further emphasizes her otherness in the IT space. It is feeding the stereotypes that women in technology are allowed only under certain circumstances and only when they play by the rules.
Next time you wonder why there aren't more women in technology, ask yourself why you have an opinion about Marissa Mayer's pregnancy. You just might have the answer.