All Eyes Are On Yahoo's New Female CEO

Former Google executive Marissa Mayer is now the new CEO of Yahoo. It is noteworthy both because she is one of a select few women in executive positions in Silicon Valley and because after the announcement she said she is soon expecting her first child. Audie Cornish speaks with former executive and long-time Valley resident Robin Wolaner about the news.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Marissa Mayer started work today at Yahoo. The fact that Yahoo's new CEO is a woman - and a young woman, just 37, has generated attention, but then came more unusual news. Marissa Mayer is pregnant. She's due to have her first baby in early October.

She told Fortune magazine: My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it. That, as you can imagine, has amplified this moment as a significant one in the history of women leaders in Silicon Valley.

Robin Wolaner knows a bit about these issues. She's founded tech companies and founded Parenting magazine and she's the author of a book called "Naked in the Boardroom."

And, Robin, reading the Wall Street Journal today, writer Janet Paskin likened her feelings of this to what she imagined African-Americans felt for Barack Obama, saying that this has raised the stakes for American businesswomen. I mean, is that true? In what ways?

ROBIN WOLANER: I'm a little bit of an outlier on this. I was Time Warner's first pregnant operating CEO almost 20 years ago, so I think it's great that they chose a woman, despite her pregnancy, but I really wish it was a great CEO position instead of one where the board was between a rock and a hard place.

CORNISH: You're referring to sort of Yahoo's struggles in general?

WOLANER: Yeah. It's known as the board that can't shoot straight, so I don't really look for them for affirmation of anything. I think it's great that Marissa Mayer took this job, that she wants to do this. It's a no-risk position for her because, if she fails, no one will blame her, but this is a crappy CEO job. Right? This is a slog. This is a turnaround. I want to see women get the great, plumb CEO assignments, as well.

CORNISH: This has launched directly into a kind of current discussion about women in the workplace and you had Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter writing about her life as a working mom in The Atlantic magazine recently.

WOLANER: I certainly read that.

CORNISH: And, of course - right. And after the Mayer announcement, Slaughter, on Twitter, wrote that Mayer is super-human, rich and in charge, not the norm. Slaughter very much made the argument against the idea of having it all.

WOLANER: Well, I've always said you can have it all. It's just hard to do it at the same time. I think that Marissa Mayer is perfectly positioned to do that and I, as a woman - and I think most of us as women - should really hesitate before questioning anybody's choices. I think Marissa Mayer wanted to be a CEO. She got offered a big CEO position and, you know, more power to her.

CORNISH: Now, during a panel discussion earlier this year, NPR's Laura Sydell asked Marissa Mayer about being a woman at Google and she said this.

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MARISSA MAYER: People ask me, what was it like to be a woman at Google? What is it like to be a woman at Google? I just don't frame it that way. It's not like I walk into the office in the morning and think, you know, what will my experience today as a woman be like?

CORNISH: And it sounds like Mayer's approach to this has been generally to kind of deemphasize the whole gender issue and I wonder if this is generational.

WOLANER: It might be generational, but I think it's also kind of made up. I think, when you talk to any candid woman, and if you talk to her in a moment when she's not in front of an audience, it is not the same being female as it is being male.

Carly Fiorina famously said that the reason she got so many magazine covers as CEO of Hewlett Packard had nothing to do with her being female, and every woman I know knew she was either lying or deluded. Marissa Mayer is not deluded. She knows that it's different being female, but she doesn't want to focus on that. She wants to focus on what she can bring to Yahoo and I think that's right.

CORNISH: So, in a way, the pregnancy is the least of her problems it sounds like you're saying.

WOLANER: Absolutely. You know, I fired one of my direct reports when I was two weeks into a six-week maternity leave and I asked him if he wanted to come to my house or do it over the phone. You can make all sorts of accommodations if you're focused on your job and you have a problem-free delivery, so I think she can do anything.

CORNISH: Robin Wolaner, thank you so much for talking with us.

WOLANER: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Robin Wolaner is a tech entrepreneur, advisor to start-ups in Silicon Valley and founder of Parenting magazine.

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