When Marissa Mayer was hired by Yahoo three years ago, she was six months pregnant. She broke through the glass ceiling and became the fourteenth highest-paid CEO in America. Mayer then went on to take a truncated maternity leave. She announced right away that she would be taking a short period of time out of the office but would work remotely throughout her absence.
Naturally, she was criticized for this choice because judging the way women have and raise babies is a national pastime.
Last week, Mayer announced that she is pregnant again, this time with twin girls. “This is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation,” she said. “I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.” On the heels of this announcement came another, more disappointing update. In a plan that was undoubtedly on Mayer’s mind when she wrote about this “unique time” for the company, Yahoo had intended to pursue a tax-free spin-off of its stake in Alibaba in order to put more money back in the hands of shareholders while avoiding some hefty taxes. Yahoo withdrew this proposal after the IRS refused the plan; its shares fell 4 percent after the news went public.
But the shocking element came into play Wednesday, September 9, when, in an interview on Bloomberg Surveillance, NYU professor Scott Galloway attacked Mayer for this decline. “If she hadn’t announced she was pregnant with twins, she’d be out of a job within six months,” Galloway said. “I don’t think any board in America right now, in technology, that’s as visible as Yahoo, wants to be seen as not leaning in.” As if those comments weren’t shocking enough, Galloway continued by stating that Mayer “got a reprieve from death row because she’s pregnant with twins.”
Wow. Talk about words that smack of sexism. When I first watched the interview, I didn’t even want to dignify Galloway’s statements with a response; however, it must be done. Put simply, Galloway’s statement that Mayer would be fired if she weren’t pregnant seems particularly misplaced, not just from a social standpoint but from a business standpoint as well. It’s not as clear-cut as he suggests.
Let’s look at the history of Mayer’s brief tenure with Yahoo. Between her arrival in July 2012 and the most recent announcement that she is due in December, Mayer has done a fairly decent job running Yahoo. Since then, Yahoo’s stock has doubled, even at one time surpassing prices the stock hadn’t seen since 2005—and beating the performance of both the Nasdaq and rivals Google and Microsoft. She has reportedly fixed upward of a thousand problems that were holding Yahoo down. Job applications increased nearly fivefold to 12,000 applicants per week, indicating that Yahoo’s perceived coolness was also on the rise. And while Yahoo’s future may be uncertain, it would seem that Mayer has started steering it in the right direction.
Nonetheless, it is true that 2015 has been a bad year for Yahoo, and it’s clear that Mayer’s honeymoon period with Yahoo is over. Yes, the stock is double what it was when she came in, but it’s also down 37 percent in 2015 and 18 percent in the past month alone. In these situations, some boards respond immediately and remove the CEO when stock tanks, but in April the Wall Street Journal reported that CEO firings have recently been at their lowest point in more than a decade. Yahoo’s plan remains undetermined, but given that the average Fortune 500 CEO holds the position for about 4.6 years, and Yahoo CEOs tend to have even shorter tenures, the end may be near for Mayer.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to firing one’s CEO, and considering the whole picture of what Mayer has brought to the company and what has happened under her watch, it is incredibly simplified to suggest that the status of her job security is as simple as a pregnancy test. Galloway has introduced the pregnancy in order to suggest that the Yahoo board is applying some sort of affirmative action to maintain its forward thrust toward gender equality, despite the fact that, according to Galloway, the woman at the top may not deserve the position. If we know one thing about Mayer, however, it’s that she’s a woman who wants to earn her position like any other man. It doesn’t seem as though she’s looking for the board to rub her belly and coo while turning a blind eye to the plummeting stock price. She understands the significance of the job at hand, and she has leaned into it.
As with most women in the workplace, Mayer is coming up against some troubling double standards. She’s been routinely criticized for her truncated maternity leave and her decision to aim for a similarly shortened leave after the birth of her twins. She built a nursery off her office at Yahoo and, of course, was criticized for that as well. Despite Mayer’s extended family leave initiative for Yahoo employees, we all know that if she had taken the full-length maternity leave or opted for increased telecommuting from home, her commitment to her position as Yahoo’s savior would have been questioned.
American culture consistently struggles with how to value pregnancy and maternity leave. We love that Mayer is the highest-paid female CEO and also growing her family. However, when something goes wrong within the company, we are just as quick to blame her with those same things. Those critiquing her are eager to remark on her pregnancy with disdain.
So would a man in the same position be fired? I’m not sure; I think it’s too soon to determine whether this downfall is worthy of a change of command. Is it fair to assume that Mayer has been saved by her pregnancy? I sure hope not. If the Yahoo board determines that Mayer’s time is up, letting her go might just be the most feminist decision. Mayer earned the position of CEO based on her business acumen, not her fertility, and if her wisdom falters, I’m sure she would anticipate a replacement regardless of her expectant status.
This article has been corrected from a previous version, which incorrectly stated the prior number of applications received at Yahoo.