Monday, July 30, 2012

Pregnant Women Leaders - What's The Big Deal?

Women have been a major part of the workforce since ... Well, forever.  We've carried the major responsibility for cooking, cleaning, birthing, organizing, leading and living for millions of years.  We've been everything from housekeepers to CEOs for generations and, as mothers, sisters, wives and bosses, we've produced the greatest leaders in the world, in all fields of human endeavor.  So why all the fuss about a pregnant woman taking over as CEO of Yahoo?

Marissa Mayer is 37 years old and is taking over the helm as president and CEO of Yahoo; if you don't know what Yahoo is, you need to get off the internet.  She's smart, witty, talented and pregnant.  And the business world appears to be stunned that a company the size of Yahoo would promote a pregnant woman to guide their company into the next phase of product cycle.  Yet, instead of celebrating her accomplishments, the news media has been flooded with stories questioning whether Yahoo was right to promote a pregnant woman to the position.  Seriously?

This is what amazes me - smart, intelligent (which is different from smart), well-spoken, talented, driven women are still, in 2012, being questioned on their ability and desire to return to work after having a baby. Just in my little circle of friends and family, there are three women giving birth in the next 6 months - one is a bank teller, one fashion designer and a woman who wrangles anesthesiologists for a major medical practice.  All three have gotten the same questions Marissa Mayer, no doubt, has been getting - "Are you coming back after the baby?"  "Are you sure you won't feel differently once the baby is born?"   And the inevitable comments behind their backs - "Oh, she's not going to be able to handle the pressure once that kid's here."  "Just watch - she'll have to move meetings so she can go pick the kid up from day care."  "Are we going to have to put a day care center in the office now?"  And the comments and questions aren't just coming from men; quite a lot of the chattering is coming from women.

My mom was a very driven woman in a man's industry (civil engineering and city planning), at a time when women were nurses and teachers; she always said the work place just can't handle the fact that anyone shows the least amount of weakness and having a baby is considered a weakness.  Of course, that didn't stop her from having five of them and going back to work immediately, but the point remains - as soon as someone hears you're going to have a baby, especially in a work environment, they immediately start making plans for your replacement and assume you're going to become as useful as a rock the minute the baby is born.

Some would say the issue is more continuity and succession; if a woman, after giving birth, decides not to come back, wouldn't it be short-sighted of a company to not have a plan to replace her?  Wouldn't it be more prudent to just put in that position a man (mostly) or woman who is unencumbered by imminent childbirth?

Sure - and let's never put anyone in a position of leadership over 60, since they might have a stroke or heart attack at any time.  Let's cross out those who are overweight and unfit as well, if we're going on the fact that they might get ill.  Smokers - better stay out of the boardroom!  See how ridiculous this argument can become?  And it is ridiculous.

Businesses need to have succession plans in place at all levels of their organization.  You never know if someone gets ill, gets hit by a bus, has a baby, needs to scale back and have a life, or just wants to quit; every employee, every manager COULD leave or otherwise be unable to do their jobs, which is why there's always a runner-up in beauty pageants.  That doesn't mean you don't promote them - instead, you plan.

Of course, the same folks who are acting as if Yahoo has made the biggest blunder ever are the ones who would also say, if Ms. Mayer would decide to take some additional time off, "Women have been giving birth in fields and going back to work since the dawn of human existence," or "See - I told you she wouldn't have the guts to play with the big boys," are really the ones with the problem.  They're also the ones who would jump all over someone above them who had cancer, or parents who needed to be taken care of, or anything else that would appear to be a "weakness."

What they fail to realize is that the very "weakness" these ones are being accused of is what makes them stronger, more courageous and better able to handle any tough situation that comes along ... and what makes them perfect to lead companies through the hardest economic times into being stronger, more robust companies, ready to take on the world.

Just remember, the next time you want to question a woman's determination to "play with the big boys" in the business world - a woman brought you into this world, raised you, often as a single mother, provided for you and is stronger than you could ever be. So back off and treat her with some respect.