Will They Know Success When They See It?

July 25, 2012Men dominate high tech industries in the United States, but this isn’t the only reason why Marissa Mayer’s recent appointment as the CEO of Yahoo! garnered so much press. In today’s guest-post, Catalyst’s Emily Cohen, Knowledge Management Librarian, digs deeper into the debate surrounding the importance (or unimportance) of Mayer’s pregnancy and motherhood status.


Marissa Mayer probably hadn’t finished Yahoo! orientation before the blog posts were up proclaiming her a bad CEO, a terrible mother, and a horrible role model—this, my friends, is progress?

As the knowledge management librarian at Catalyst, I am usually one of the first people to hear about a new woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It could come from my RSS feed, another Catalyst staff member, or occasionally my husband, who likes to “contribute to the cause.” It is always an exciting day when we learn about another new member joining this elusive club, which is now at a record high with Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo! Inc., which ranks number 483 on the Fortune 500.

Yes, we have a record high number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. This would be the ideal time for balloons to drop from the ceiling and the cartwheeling to ensue, but then I confirm it for the media outlets and there it is in black and white: “Yes, a record high: twenty women CEOs. Twenty out of 500; that means just 4% of the Fortune 500 companies have a woman chief executive.” And then I hear the “Debbie Downer” music in my head.

The disclosure of Marissa Mayer’s “but wait, there’s more” pregnancy announcement quickly added fuel to the judgmental firestorm and left me disheartened. I feel especially passionate about this topic right now because my boss, Emily Troiano, is about to give birth any day. No, Emily is not a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and you would have to ask her if she thinks she “has it all,” but I can tell you that she is taking maternity leave and has spent as much time preparing for her leave as she has preparing for her new baby.

I could reference the “glass cliff” research that shows Marissa Mayer has accepted a position in a company that has been struggling for years, which begs the question: would she have gotten this opportunity otherwise? Or I could mention the studies on the “double bind,” where Ms. Mayer will be held to a much higher standard than her male counterparts, and if she fails (which also depends on the definition of “failure”) it will serve as an indictment on all women, and especially mothers, in leadership. Or I could highlight Catalyst’s most recent report on high potentials dispelling the “queen bee” myth that women are holding other women back and will expect their pregnant employees to live up to Marissa Mayer’s standard. But today I would rather point out that my boss is the best at what she does—consistently. Regardless of the time of day, or whether she is creating a new person while doing it. Did I also mention that my boss works virtually and has done so successfully for six years?

No, I’m not trying to make my supervisor out to be Superwoman, I just think it is important for people to remember that not all jobs and people are the same, and that everyone performs better when they are given the opportunity to excel. For some, these opportunities are made possible because of flexible work hours, or working via home office. For others it may mean a large salary and ability to hire help.

As Catalyst President and CEO Ilene H. Lang says, “for example is not proof,” and the way Marissa Mayer works in her so-called “condition” should not be the barometer against which all working women are measured, pregnant or otherwise. Success cannot be determined on a “having-it-all or nothing” scale, because it doesn’t allow for the recognition of improvement or stagnation.

I think I speak for everyone at Catalyst when I say congratulations to Marissa Mayer, and I hope that in addition to being pregnant and being a CEO, someday she might also be able to play at Augusta National Golf Club—here’s to progress!


Emily Cohen conducts in-depth research requests on a variety of topics for staff, media, and member organizations as part of the Information Center and is a member of Catalyst’s Work-Life Issue Specialty Team. She received her MSLIS from The Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University and received her BS in Communications from Ithaca College.  

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.