The Unexpected Ways Marissa Mayer’s Pregnancy Turned Out To Be A Big Deal

Yahoo’s new CEO doesn’t want to make a big fuss over her pregnancy, which is one thing that makes it so unique.

NOAH BERGER / Reuters

Marisa Mayer will be one of 19 women running Fortune 500 companies when she assumes her role as CEO of Yahoo. It’s an unusual position for a woman to be in — and what’s more, the 37-year-old will start the job as the first Fortune 500 CEO to be pregnant. But Mayer and Yahoo are treating the precedent as no big deal — an approach that’s both encouraging for both women in the workplace and Yahoo’s legal department.

Initial reports made sure to note that the pregnancy “wasn’t an issue for Yahoo’s board,” as sources told All Things D. “It was not part of the consideration,” a person “close to the situation” told the site. And that’s good, because, though reporters seem unaware, not hiring a woman because she’s pregnant is illegal. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring.” Did the whole country sleep through its harassment and discrimination seminars?

The NBD attitude with which Yahoo is required to treat Mayer’s pregnancy is in line with the way Mayer has addressed it personally — almost with nonchalance. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” she told Fortune.

Mayer, in fact, doesn’t seem to worry too much about any of the issues related to her pioneering status as a woman in tech. In an interview with BuzzFeed Shift a few months ago when she was VP of Local and Location Services at Google, where she’d worked at for 13 years, Mayer acknowledged the gender imbalance in Silicon Valley, but she also said she wasn’t too worried about the problem, reasoning that the industry was a relatively new one and would eventually attract more women. She said that she hoped telling her own story would help draw women to the field. But she said she rarely thought about the fact that she was the company’s most powerful woman, she said: “It’s not something that I think about very much. I’m really very focused day-to-day on the work here: what I’m doing with my team, the products that we’re building, what we’re doing for users.”

To Mayer, being a woman isn’t something to get particularly worked up about. In speaking to her, it seemed that the work she’s done over the course of her career — including helping to develop Gmail, Google search, and Google Maps — defined her more than her gender.

Perhaps Mayer’s lack of concern for her female-ness in a male-dominated industry is why she also doesn’t seem to worry much about embracing a sometimes outwardly feminine persona. She happily discusses her love for things stereotypically seen as feminine, like fashion (she talks animatedly of her love for designer Oscar De La Renta and has appeared in Vogue). Because of this, adjectives like “glamorous” often precede her name.

Mayer also differs from her powerful female peers in Silicon Valley because she doesn’t make championing the rise of women her cause célèbre. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and perhaps the best-known woman in Silicon Valley, talks frequently about female empowerment (she does it very well, too; see her oft-cited 2011 commencement speech at Barnard and her TED talk). Carol Bartz, who was fired as Yahoo’s CEO ten months ago, also issued rallying cries to women everywhere in her own very blunt way. Speaking on a panel on May, Bartz declared: “There are so few positions for women available that they have to be über-competitive.”

Mayer’s quieter approach to female empowerment doesn’t make her any less a trailblazer. Perhaps it speaks to how far we’ve come in not only accepting — but expecting — women to make it to the top without so much campaigning, whether or not they like clothes or happen to be bearing children.

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