By Margaret Carlson of the Bloomberg News
Last month it was the cover story in the Atlantic: an explanation of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Last week came a response from the business pages: “Oh, But You Can.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who quit her high-ranking job at the State Department to return to teaching at Princeton University and spend more time with her family, is the author of the magazine cover story. Then Marissa Mayer rocked the male-dominated world of technology when she was named chief executive officer of Yahoo — and announced she was pregnant.
The headlines about Mayer are deserved. No one can remember another woman about to deliver a child getting the top job anywhere. Only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and most of those became so after their child-bearing years were over. The only other tech CEO, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, is 55.
In government, too, top jobs — look at the Supreme Court, for example — typically go to women whose children are grown or who don’t have any. Back in the Dark Ages, when I was a government lawyer and pregnant, I waited as long as possible to divulge my pregnancy. I preferred to be thought of as fat rather than irrelevant.
So yes, it is good news that Mayer broke the nursery ceiling, especially if it trickles down. Now that we’re done cheering, let’s have a quiet moment to think about who’s more right about the state of women in the workplace: the professor or the CEO?
Slaughter congratulated Mayer on her triumph with the cautionary note that not everyone should try this at home. Mayer, she said, proves her point: The only woman who can have it all is “superhuman, rich, and in charge.”
Look at Mayer’s statement about coming back to work. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work through it,” she told Fortune. Thanks a lot for that.
True, Mayer doesn’t need time off in the sense the rest of us do. As the boss, she’s the queen of flextime. Worried about making it to the office for a meeting, or a conference call, or a PowerPoint presentation? Not Mayer. The meeting starts when she says it starts — and will as long as she’s there.
And would Yahoo be giving the job to a pregnant woman if it weren’t already in a what-the-heck state of mind? After all, this is a company whose stock has lost half its value in the past four years and has scrolled through CEOs like so many instant messages. Mayer’s selection doesn’t mean Exxon Mobil or IBM will be picking a pregnant CEO anytime soon.
There’s also a sense that this choice is proof of the “glass cliff” theory, which says a woman only gets a job when the odds are stacked against her success. And when it’s not worth as much anymore.
Then there’s money, which is one thing that separates the happy working mothers from the harried working mothers. Mayer, wealthy from her time at Google and destined to be well-paid at Yahoo, may well change a diaper. But peek inside the household of a woman at the top, and you will find out that she doesn’t just have a great nanny, she has several. It’s a family version of outsourcing. This doesn’t make Mayer a bad mother — just a more efficient one.
Read More Mom Success Stories