SAN FRANCISCO -- Just days after Yahoo tapped former Google executive Marissa Mayer for its CEO post, the 37 year old has taken on another high-profile role.
After announcing that she was pregnant -- and wouldn't let that interfere with her work duties -- Mayer took center stage in the nation's often-heated debate over women's roles at home and in the workplace.
"I like to stay in the rhythm of things," she told Fortune magazine. "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."
Reactions was swift, and in some cases, scorching, as her matter-of-fact declaration took on a life of its own in social media. Countless posts on Facebook, Twitter and throughout the blogosphere criticized her decision to keep working. Others warned that Mayer, who is expecting her first child, had underestimated the challenges of being a mom.
Much of the scrutiny comes because of the unique circumstances in play, says Laura Graves, associate professor of management at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Not just a female CEO, but one who is expecting.
"Despite all the changes in society, we haven't given up traditional gender roles," Graves says, and women are still assumed to be the main caretakers of children.
And so Mayer's swift move to take over and revive the struggling Yahoo brand was quickly eclipsed this week by talk of her parenting choices, the pros and cons of taking a long maternity leave, female ascension in the workplace and the challenges of work-life balance.
Some of the myriad armchair critics have also suggested that her vast wealth and high-level position give her an edge -- indeed, the luxury -- that other working mothers don't have.
"Mayer will have all the things parents need to combine family and career -- good child care, the ability to set her own scheduled, a spouse with the same flexibility," says work and family blogger Lisa Belkin. "She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will."
On People magazine's website, for instance, a couple of reader exchanges delivered not far apart illustrated both ends of the spectrum.
"As an ambitious young woman, I find her to be a role model in so many regards," said one post written under the moniker "really?"
Someone named "Emily" said, "The thing every child wants most (is) their mother's attention, and unfortunately her son will have very little of it."
But it has gotten better
Though few would argue that raising a child while working has ever been easy, a series of advances since the 1960s have at least changed the circumstances faced by working mother in the United States.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws came into force prohibiting discrimination against new and expecting mothers, workplaces began offering greater flexibility. Today, telecommuting and on-site day care are more common.
Even so, many practical questions remain. How do the mental and physical drains of pregnancy affect a woman's performance at work? How much time does a mother need to recover physically after giving birth? What are the logistics of planning out child care?
Polling still reflects a deep cultural skepticism of mothers who decide to return to work.
In a 2010 report, the Pew Research Center found that 21% of adults in the USA said the trend toward mothers of young children working outside the home has been a good thing for society. Thirty-seven percent deemed it a bad thing, and 38% said it hasn't made much difference.
As for an expected generation gap on Mayer's approach to the children-and-work dilemma, Graves says that's not necessarily so. There's little data, she says, noting that "we can't pin it down to age. It depends on the whole value of the person."
Deena Rosenberg, 29, of Teaneck, N.J., just returned to work at a public relations firm after a 12-week maternity leave for her first child. She says she has a good friend, also 29, who questioned her decision to go back to work and put her son in day care.
But even Rosenberg has concerns about Mayer's plans to work during her official maternity leave.
"Her statement sets a bad precedent for other new moms and the corporations they work for that will now expect that to be normal maternity-leave behavior," she says. "The reality is that the initial days and weeks after having a baby is a difficult time physically and emotionally, and is also crucial to the formation of the mother-child bond."
Celebs make it look easy
High-profile women in arenas such as business, politics and fashion have garnered headlines with their examples of what looks like an easy return to work.
Sarah Palin, who was governor of Alaska when she gave birth to her youngest son in 2008, was back on the job just three days later. Model Heidi Klum gave birth in October 2009 and sauntered back onto the Victoria's Secret runway in November. Then-expecting singer-turned-fashion designer Victoria Beckham told Glamour magazine in June 2011 that she planned to work right until her fourth child was born. "Maternity leave -- what's that?" she asked.
But as with Mayer, these women have resources that other working moms don't. They can hire full-time help. They are also in entrepreneurial or leadership roles that tend to give them more professional power than other workers.
Even with that cash and cache, some mothers predict that ehse women will lose out on certain things because of their demanding work schedules.
Elana Drell-Szyfer, CEO of cosmetics company AHAVA North America and a mother of three, says that working after her first child's birth was more difficult than she expected.
She figured she could manage business e-mails and other needs, but she was surprised by how much time it took to take care of her baby -- and by the drain on her.
"I was like, 'How hard can this be? It's a little baby and they sleep the majority of the time,'" says Drell-Szyfer, who was a high-level executive at another cosmetics company at the time. "But you have no idea about what is to come."
She recalls the night she realized she couldn't keep up.
While trying to nurse the baby and work on her laptop at the same time, Drell-Szyfer says she thought, "This is really wrong. I should be trying to bond with this child ... and I actually don't look professional trying to answer e-mails at 3 a.m."
Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote about the challenges of managing family and work in a widely read Atlantic magazine cover story titled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All."
"When my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could," she wrote. "When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I'd come home not only because of Princeton's rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible."
A double standard?
In June 2011, gossip website Gawker reported that Google co-founder Larry Page was expecting his second child. That was two months after Page took the CEO title at the technology behemoth. There were no follow-up headlines, no social media debates, no loud conversations about how he could lead an Internet giant and still be a father.
As for Yahoo, its board didn't seem to flinch at Mayer's pregnancy. Company representatives and Mayer -- the company's fifth CEO in five years -- weren't available for comment, but in a news release, Yahoo board Chairman Fred Amoroso said Mayer's "unparalleled track record in technology, design and product execution makes her the right leader for Yahoo at this time of enormous opportunity."
Mayer, who was previously an executive at Google, said in theFortune interview that Yahoo's directors "showed their evolved thinking."
As much as society has evolved, women still face the greater scrutiny when they decide to return to work after having children, says Rosalind Chait Barnett, a senior scientist at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center.
"If a man was taking a job like this and his wife was going to have his first child, that would be a yawn," she says. "People wouldn't be talking about it."
Women and men will wonder "if she can pull this off," she says. That scrutiny is "a burden that a man doesn't have to bear."
(Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY)