Bringing Up Baby: Marissa Mayer and demystifying CEO pregnancies

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

Soon after Steven R. Appleton, the CEO of Micron, died in a single-engine plane crash this past spring, there was some impolitic grumbling. Should top executives have to disclose risky pastimes like amateur aviation? Don’t shareholders deserve to know when they’re staking their trust—and 747-sized salaries—in people who harbor the curious “urge to fly their own planes,” as Jacob Weisberg once described the dangerous brain condition that’s almost epidemic in some superrich quarters?

Maybe. After all, CEOs are said to be indispensable. That’s how they amass their nine figures. Their bodies become, in some sense, the corporate body. Donald Trump’s company is tied to his pompous comportment and gilded hair. The same is true for Ted Turner’s robust outdoorsiness or Richard Branson’s ambitious athleticism. Shareholders may be within their right to know if that body is in a precarious position.

After initially dissembling, Steve Jobs in 2004 finally disclosed to Apple employees that he was seriously sick with a pancreatic tumor. As he grew thinner and frailer, observers speculated about his health and took the measure of his contributions to his company. This process ended up being essential to setting up the orderly succession that has kept Apple running smoothly since his death.

But a metastatic tumor—or a JFK Jr. flight hobby—can kill a person. It seems reasonable to demand transparency about the insurability of a CEO. However, reasonableness on this subject points to absurdity in a more recent, piquant case: Namely, the suggestion that companies should disclose a peculiarly female “health condition,” when announcing female CEOs. That “health condition”? Pregnancy.

Marissa Mayer, former Google It girl, took charge of Yahoo last week. Three hours after the Yahoo press release went out, the 37-year-old revealed that she was six months pregnant. (I’m assuming the news didn't shock Mayer's Google office mates.) She had mentioned the pregnancy to Yahoo’s board when they came calling, and they didn’t mind. But, is her “delicate condition” really shareholder-worthy information?

Pregnancy, lest anyone still wonders, is actually not an illness. It’s a sign of health, and a significant contributor to it. But that’s not really the point. No one—even scolding observers like Francine McKenna in Forbes—really believes that pregnancy in a healthy woman, even one over 35, poses risks to the mother. And under SEC rules, companies don’t have to disclose an employee’s pregnancy except under certain kinds of investigations.

But the truth is that corporate America, as well as political America, which is to say America, has long been awed by women’s bodies and frightened by their effects on the workplace. Consider the cases—well outside of the Kingdom of Saud—where women’s bodies at the office are described as “distracting” or otherwise a hindrance to productivity. And that’s usually secretaries and interns. It should be no surprise that people are unhinged at the thought of the corporation depending on the inner workings of a woman’s mind and body in the top job.

What if they get um those weird headaches? Or their periods? Or just have those strange “fallopian tubes”—a phrase a male friend of mine uses to stand in for everything unfathomable about women’s physical existence?

Anyone who can remember the straight-faced concerns in the 1980s over what progesterone fluctuations might do to geopolitics were a woman to become president knows that this—no matter how coeducated most of us are—is a Mars-Venus issue. It’s obvious but I’ll say it anyway: Never, officially never, has a man newly in a job been evaluated in light of the mysteries of male moods and desires and afflictions and neuroses, and their connections to androgens and anatomy.

For a time, in movies, obstetrical issues seemed to confer magical powers on working women. Fran McDormand’s awesomely pregnant Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” comes to mind. Marge’s detective brilliance, we came to understand, was a function of the no-nonsense attitude brought on by her pregnancy. The same is true of Regina King as Marcy Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire”; she speaks the truth because she is too pregnant—impatient and focused—for lies.

(In “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the new comedy based on the harrowing childbirth-prep book, women who are expecting do little but expect. Too bad.)

Sure, having “women in the workplace” (in the old women’s-lib expression) has to be OK with Americans in the abstract. They’re more than half of the workforce. But women who are actually incarnate in bodies? Real, flesh-and-blood women can still make many flesh-and-blood men squeamish—especially when those with women’s bodies seem too. . .womanly. Like voluptuous. Or pregnant. Or menopausal.

The president and CEO of an august institution in New York tells me that she needs women on her board because the men, during meetings, dissolve in embarrassment when she’s undergoing a routine hot flash. The women, for their part, hand her a bottle of water and get on with business.

Similarly, women with new babies are routinely sighted pumping breast milk in the women’s restrooms of big office buildings. Pumpers typically keep even the non-nude part of the pumping process—the washing of bottles, the sanitizing of tubes or charging of the pump—out of sight of male colleagues. But that’s not because they’re flustered by the practice. In single-sex restrooms, they’re always ready to swap pumping jokes (“porn for robots”). No, they hide it because men are flustered by breast pumps.

And why shouldn’t they be? Breast pumps are deeply strange to people who don’t use them. Just as, say, urinals are strange to the rest of us. (For real, I don’t understand them! How do they flush? Where's the privacy?)

But that doesn’t mean that a CEO who uses a urinal ought to disclose that info to shareholders.