Mayer’s Miscalculation

As a feminist, I was troubled by the brouhaha that erupted when Mayer announced her pregnancy.  This piece for Mint is a reaction.

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The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Ten years after Betty Friedan was dismissed from her job for being pregnant with her second child, she wrote the bestselling book, “The Feminine Mystique,” that sparked the second wave of feminism.  One day after Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo announced on Twitter that she was pregnant; a harsh and judgmental debate broke out among the working-women all over the world about the wisdom of “Marissa’s Choice.”  In columns, talk shows, and internet forums, working women (and men) debated and pontificated over whether Mayer was being fair to Yahoo by taking on such a high-pressure job at a vulnerable stage in life; about whether such an issue would have even come up had Mayer been a man; and about whether Mayer was holding up the feminist flag by ‘doing it all,’ or taking on a superhuman challenge and setting herself up for failure; and fail the feminist movement in the process.

Mayer probably expected the brickbats.  As a high-profile Silicon Valley senior executive, she was used to questions about competence and leadership abilities: what does a woman who has run a few—admittedly high-profile—divisions at Google know about turning around an ailing company? She probably expected questions about judgment: both hers and Yahoo’s.  Why was Yahoo making her a CEO when she was six months pregnant? Why was she leaving a flourishing behemoth where she could coast and experience the pleasure of first-time motherhood for the cauldron-like pressure of being captain of a sinking ship? Was it because she was sidelined at Google? Was it because she was going to chase her ambitions no matter what the cost? Was she going to flame out in a few months?

The wisecracks began on July 16th when Mayer announced that she was pregnant.  Without preamble or warning, after a tweet about computer science being Stanford’s largest major and her desire to watch an episode of “Breaking Bad,” the TV show, Mayer tweeted that she was beginning her new role as CEO of Yahoo the following day.  Seven hour later, she tweeted news of her pregnancy: “Another piece of good news today — @zackbogue and I are expecting a new baby boy!”

Mayer probably knew that her pregnancy announcement would have created waves.  I am not sure she anticipated that it would become the center of a media maelstrom that mostly criticizes her approach.  Message board suggestions have ranged from downright nasty (put the baby for adoption since you won’t be able to spend any time with him anyway), to stout defense (just because she has delivered a baby doesn’t mean that her brain will become too garbled to do the job of CEO), to envy (she is a high-achieving, wealthy brainaic who can afford a slew of nannies), to veiled pity (girl, you have no idea what you are getting into).  Rather than her appointment, the pregnancy became the focus of the discussion.

My view is that the hue and cry happened, not because of what Mayer said but the way she said it.  There are many ways for a public figure to reveal a life-changing event to the world.  Twitter is not one of them.  Sure, celebrities routinely announce life-events through their Twitter feed.  In Mayer’s case, given the confluence of big announcements, a far better method would have been to either write a letter, or issue a press release.  The sobriety of a letter would suggest that Mayer knew what she was getting into.  It would have cushioned the message, pre-empted the criticism, and allowed Mayer to discuss all the challenges that she has no doubt thought about.  The playfulness and immediacy of Twitter made her come across as a dilettante.  It did not give motherhood—or being CEO– the respect the role deserves.  While Mayer also announced her pregnancy in an interview with Fortune magazine, it was the casual Twitter announcement that opened her up to scrutiny and criticism.  It made Mayer seem tone-deaf to her audience.

Some of this has to do with geography.  In India, we are used to building consensus on everything: family weddings, how to compost in a community, whether to drink cow’s milk within a family.  This kind of communal living makes us adept at fashioning messages while keeping our audience in mind.  We are adept at gauging reaction and have an instinct for appropriateness.  Silicon Valley and the isolation and hubris it entails had perhaps made Mayer miscalculate the reaction to her message.

Perhaps Mayer’s pregnancy will have one good result: it will skew Silicon Valley’s culture towards the Indian way of doing things.  First of all, if you are a 37-year-old woman, the Indian way is to expect her to get pregnant at some point.  Why not in Silicon Valley? Why not fashion work-life laws that expect pregnancies rather than be surprised when they happen? Second of all, in India, somehow we know when a couple is trying for a baby.  Don’t ask me how, but our entire community is keeping tabs on a couple in my building who has been together for years and are yet to have a baby—even though they have said a single word.  So when this particular working woman—let’s call her Melisa—announces that she is pregnant just after taking a high-stress job, there will be chuckles of “I knew it,” rather than, “Oh, girlfriend, you don’t know what you are getting into.”  Lastly, the Indian way of announcing a pregnancy involves rituals, warding off the evil eye, wearing black saris and glass bangles, and exchanging sweets.  These cultural customs serve one great purpose: they allow for buy-in from the community.  The problem with Mayer’s announcement was not that she was pregnant while being CEO.  It was that she didn’t allow for buy-in.

Shoba Narayan heartily supports Mayer’s decision.  She would like to introduce Mayer to some good Indian music—both for her baby’s sake, and to attune Mayer’s ears to consequences of a wrongly delivered message.