Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer is breaking new ground for Fortune 500 companies by starting her job more than six months pregnant, a trend already embraced by young women running Silicon Valley startups.
Mayer, an engineer and former Google (GOOG) Inc. executive who helped develop the company’s home page and maps products, was hired by Yahoo after a nine-week search for a CEO. The 37-year- old brings the number of women running Fortune 500 companies to 20. Many other women on the list -- including WellPoint Inc.’s Angela Braly, PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi and Xerox Corp.’s Ursula Burns -- had children before becoming CEOs.
“Yahoo’s board found Mayer’s pregnancy a nonissue and that’s a big sign of progress,” said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, who is pregnant with twins. “But at many companies, it’s still an issue.”
Mayer and her husband, technology investor Zachary Bogue, are expecting a boy on Oct. 7, she told Fortune magazine this week after she was named Yahoo’s CEO. She disclosed to Yahoo’s board that she was pregnant in late June, Mayer said in the interview. Dana Lengkeek, a spokeswoman for Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo, declined to comment further.
Mayer is almost 20 years younger than most CEOs of large companies. The average age of CEOs for companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 is 56.5, according to 2012 data compiled by executive search firm Spencer Stewart. That means the childbirth question is often irrelevant when recruiting leaders.
Technology companies, with a disproportionate number of top executives under 40 and the increasing presence of women, are finding ways to accommodate childbirth and young kids. Even so, women continue to struggle for representation in a field where they’re outnumbered 3-to-1 by men.
Many employers in general would still prefer not to hire women who are going to have children soon, said Pat Cook, head of executive-search firm Cook & Co. in Bronxville, New York.
“Even though companies know they can’t discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, when they’re looking for very senior hires, they’re still likely to be cautious,” she said. “If they have two equal candidates, one who’s pregnant and one who isn’t, they are likely to choose the one who’s not about to become a mother.”
For startups founded by women, navigating pregnancy is already common practice. Pooja Sankar, the CEO of education- technology startup Piazza Technologies Inc. in Palo Alto, California, gave birth to a boy 16 days ago. She held a work- related call while still recovering from cesarean-section surgery.
Julia Hartz, co-founder of Eventbrite in San Francisco, answered work e-mails from her hospital bed when she had her first baby. With her second, born seven months ago, she has hired people and attended meetings while caring for her infant. Mayer’s appointment to Yahoo should help end the debate over whether women can handle childbirth and the challenges of a CEO job, Hartz said.
“She’s showing women that she’s going to do it and she thinks it’s going to work,” she said. “For Yahoo, it’s a great example of them having faith in a great talent. The fact that it was such a short search process means they didn’t really hesitate because of pregnancy.”
With a computer-engineering background and a job at Google since the beginning, Mayer is more in the mold of Facebook (FB) Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg than an earlier generation of Silicon Valley female CEOs like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who attended business school and climbed the corporate ladder.
The pregnancy helps blaze a trail as well, said Carley Roney, co-founder of XO Group Inc. (XOXO), a publicly held company that runs websites on marriage and childbirth.
“Not only is she young and female and product-focused, she’s also pregnant,” said Roney, who has three kids. “I can’t imagine a more game-changing hire for the CEO of a huge media company.”
Women’s gains in technology still lag behind their advances in the broader economy. They hold 56 percent of all professional jobs in the U.S. while accounting for only 25 percent of information-technology positions, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Women account for 18 percent of computer-science degrees and are founders of fewer than 8 percent of technology startups.
Mayer’s hiring helps bolster a comeback for women in the top ranks of technology companies following a low point in 2011. When Yahoo ousted CEO Carol Bartz in September, it left Silicon Valley without any women running large companies. The industry’s previous best-known female leaders -- Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ)’s Fiorina and EBay Inc. (EBAY)’s Whitman -- had stepped down years earlier.
The past 10 months have brought a wave of high-profile hires. International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) named Ginni Rometty its first female CEO, and Whitman has returned to the executive suite by taking charge of Hewlett-Packard.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also has broadened her role at the social-media company. She joined Facebook’s board last month after helping steer it through a tumultuous initial public offering.
Technology itself is helping female executives balance work and family. Smartphones have made it easier to do work while taking kids to the doctor or feeding them, said Divya Gugnani, the CEO of shopping website Send the Trend in New York, who had a baby 10 weeks ago. The more relaxed attitudes of technology companies also help, she said.
“In the tech startup community, you bring your kid to work,” Gugnani said. “It’s just a very different approach to parenting.”