Earlier this week, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that she is pregnant for the second time. The mother of a toddler already, she and her husband are now expecting twin girls in December. In her announcement on Tumblr, she explained that since she has had a healthy pregnancy thus far, she plans on returning to the office two weeks after she gives birth—just as she did after her first pregnancy.
If you were only reading the public’s reaction to her statement, one would not be wrong in assuming that perhaps Mayer had announced that she is planning to slash every employee's salary or perhaps embark on a new hobby in which she drowns puppies for sport.
The New Republic declared Mayer “a bad example.” Anne Weisberg, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, told The Guardian that Mayer’s choice is "disappointing." Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal tweeted that Mayer's choice helps explain why maternity leave policies are shrinking.
People were, to put it briefly, pissed—at a woman not taking more time off after giving birth, at the message Mayer’s abridged maternity leave might send to women in corporate America, at the suggestion to men that a woman who makes a different choice is not cut out for leadership.
Somehow, Mayer’s pregnancy announcement—a simple statement to address matters both professional and personal—was taken as The Ultimate Affront to Women. It was also a striking contrast to an announcement made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a month ago.
In his announcement that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, a physician, are expecting a daughter, Zuckerberg also disclosed the couple’s struggle with pregnancy loss, outlining the three miscarriages that preceded the pregnancy. And rightfully, the world cheered. Not only was attention being brought to the often silent struggle of pregnancy loss—but by someone as significant as a wunderkind male CEO.
“Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you—as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own,” wrote Zuckerberg. “In today’s open and connected world, discussing these issues doesn’t distance us; it brings us together. It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope. When we started talking to our friends, we realized how frequently this happened—that many people we knew had similar issues and that nearly all had healthy children after all. We hope that sharing our experience will give more people the same hope we felt and will help more people feel comfortable sharing their stories as well.”
Zuckerberg’s announcement—made via Facebook, of course—had the general tone and sentiment of an email (or Facebook post) of a friend. Mayer’s announcement, while cordial, was all business.
The two announcements, by their very nature, are all but impossible to compare. Mayer’s pregnancy announcement was namely intended to inform the public about how her situation might affect business, while Zuckerberg seemingly wanted to start a public conversation around miscarriage. Mayer spoke as a CEO first, while Zuckerberg’s voice was that of the partner of a woman who has dealt with pregnancy loss.
Still, on the heels of Zuckerberg's announcement, I wonder: Would the world might have reacted more empathetically to Mayer if her reveal had been more confessional? Perhaps if she had spoken more to the personal aspects of her very personal choice, the backlash might not have been so fierce.
There were no tears staining Mayer’s post, no soul laid bare. There was no treatise on the realistic issues women face in the workforce between the parallel, contrasting trajectories of career ascension and fertility decline. There was no Lean In-soul baring of the plights and perils of “having it all.” There was no acknowledgement, even, of the circumstances that make it really not a big deal at all for a woman of Mayer’s means and position to, indeed, go back to work within a month of giving birth.
When social media allows for everything to be so easily shared—just this week I watched a former colleague liveblog her own labor over Facebook—public figures often pay a price for choosing privacy. We are owed, we seem to feel, the Kardashian experience from anyone in the public eye, a wrenching confessional of struggle and triumph.
And yet, while it's tough to draw a comparison between Mayer and Zuckerberg's respective announcements, they do highlight one reality about gender in the workplace today: It's still much riskier for a woman leader to show emotion and vulnerability in a public forum than it is for a man. (Sheryl Sandberg proves a striking exception.) Mayer was likely doing what was expected and accepted in her announcement. Zuckerberg was taking a risk that wasn't so risky for a man.
Mayer, in being that rare female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, has likely been denied the cultural allowance to publicly display her feelings, whatever they may be. She has long lived and worked and achieved in a world where women are penalized for “being women”—a world where emotion is weakness and time out of the corner office compounds to nail shut the coffin of accusations that you aren’t truly committed to the job at hand.
It’s easy to pull a Zuck—that is, to confess your feelings publicly—when you are the Zuck. And not just the Zuck, but any one of the high-profile CEOs who brings a penis with them into the corner office. Men who emote at work are evolved. Women who emote at work are quickly escorted out the door to the nearest psych ward for treatment of their Victorian hysteria.
(I would also be remiss not to note that Zuckerberg spoke for both he and his wife with his announcement. Pricilla didn't speak publicly about it; her husband did.)
Perhaps Mayer did not struggle with her choice. And if she didn't, that's fine, too. She should be allowed, in the infamous words of Sex and the City’s Charlotte York, to choose her choice. No one should dictate her feelings or her reactions.
But perhaps Mayer has suffered for choosing not to lift the curtain on how the proverbial sausage is made behind her choices. Perhaps we need to be just as inclined to respect those who do not share as those who opt-in for laying bare. Perhaps it really is none of our business, after all—especially when it comes to someone whose only role in our lives is running the businesses with which we casually interact.
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.