Marissa Mayer and work-life nirvana

NEW YORK Tue Jul 17, 2012 5:41pm EDT

Marissa Mayer poses at Google's Mountain View, California headquarters, in this February 24, 2009 file photo. Mayer, who at the time served as Google's vice president of Search Products & User Experience, was named as Yahoo's CEO in a surprise announcement on July 16, 2012. REUTERS/Noah Berger/Files

Marissa Mayer poses at Google's Mountain View, California headquarters, in this February 24, 2009 file photo. Mayer, who at the time served as Google's vice president of Search Products & User Experience, was named as Yahoo's CEO in a surprise announcement on July 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Noah Berger/Files

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Can women have the whole shebang - the career, the family and eternal bliss?

The latest poster child for work-life nirvana is Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's newly appointed CEO - who is seven months pregnant.

Cali Williams Yost, a flexible work expert, says Mayer's pregnancy is noteworthy and symbolic, but not career-defining.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Yost, a working mother of two daughters, based in Madison, New Jersey, and author of the forthcoming "Tweak It: Small Changes/Big Impact-Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day" (Center Street, January 2013).

Q. What does Mayer's pregnancy mean for working women?

A. She is a powerful symbol of what people still think is impossible. The hullabaloo is that she challenges an outdated mindset. That's why the fact that this is even happening is amazing; however, it's not so amazing that it should be the sole focus of her tenure as the CEO of a company. It's something to be remarked upon as what's possible. It's an example of how people combine work and life in a way that works for them.

My hope is that her story shows us that having a life - whatever that looks like, be it a pregnancy or an aging parent - should not keep you from doing your job. There will be women who don't want to do what she's doing, and there will be other women who look at her and say, "That's me."

Q. But most CEOs are not female.

A. Right. The only way women who are not very wealthy, in control of their schedules and in very senior positions can combine pregnancy and work is if we have all things we don't have now. That includes affordable and reliable childcare, some kind of paid leave as well as eldercare support. For the normal, average, everyday woman, it's much tougher.

Q. Why is "having it all" suddenly considered a failed theory?

A. We keep getting trapped in the limiting "all-work/no-work" dichotomy and fail to see the countless possibilities in between.

Look at the recent Atlantic Magazine cover story that's generated so much buzz. Anne-Marie Slaughter - who is a politics and international affairs professor at Princeton University and a former State Department official - chronicles the struggle of juggling a high-pressure job with the needs of her family. She went from an incredibly flexible work environment in academia as a professor at Princeton to a very inflexible one at the State Department.

Q. So how can we fix the problem?

A. There will always be people who choose to work all the time, and there will always be people who don't work for pay - but neither of them are the majority. We need to focus on everyone else. We still struggle to find ways to describe working differently - stay-at-home is not the alternative to working.

People need to be able to reset their careers when circumstances change. In Slaughter's case, her son began to have some trouble in her absence (while she was in her State Department post), and she was going to lose a tenured position at an Ivy League school if she didn't go back. She made a change, but continued to work full-time for professional and personal reasons.

Q. Do women need to be more selfish with their careers?

A. Everyone needs to be more creative. A woman I know was offered a job as head of information technology for an investment bank. The guy who had the job before her worked 24/7. She had two kids and didn't want to work every minute of the day. The team created a system of shifts so the globe was covered. Nobody worked every night. She was even able to telecommute on Wednesdays.

The other people on her team didn't like working constantly, either. And they were all men. They welcomed the conversation about working better, smarter and flexibly. And guess what? They were more productive when they altered the way they worked.

Q. Has the weak economy changed the role of flexibility in the workplace?

A. People are less afraid to work flexibly after the downturn. There may be more hesitancy to raise your hand to make a big change such as, "I want to work three days a week," and more willingness to embrace small, manageable changes in the way work is done - maybe coming in later and leaving later to get to the gym. Small changes like that can make a real difference.

Q. Is striking a good work arrangement only a challenge for women?

A. Men also make tough decisions to work differently because of family considerations.

Bill Galston made headlines when he left the Clinton White House, where he was a senior economic adviser, because he missed his son. Now he works for a think tank. Joe Scarborough left Congress because his 14-year-old son needed him in Florida, and Washington was too far away. He now hosts Morning Joe on MSNBC. Alec Baldwin stopped doing movies for a period of time and joined 30 Rock because, as a divorced dad, he needed a more regular schedule.

Male law firm partners take positions as in-house counsel at companies so they can have more regular hours to be with their families.

Q. Why don't guys have guilt? Do women prioritize differently?

A. A Pew Research study recently asked how important is it for a man to be a good provider in a marriage. Some 67 percent of respondents said it's very important. But only 33 percent said it was very important for women.

Society expects a man to be the breadwinner. That's radically different from the expectations of women. What that does is limit the freedom of men to make different work-life decisions. As a result, when they choose work over their families, even if that's not in their heart, they feel it's what they should do.

(Reporting by Lauren Young; Editing by Linda Stern and Leslie Gevirtz; The YOUNG BUCKS column appears monthly and at additional times as warranted. Lauren Young tweets at www.twitter.com/laurenyoung. Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/lauren-young)

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