A daily bulletin of news & opinion

19 July 2012

This week a struggling corporation poached a top executive from a rival company to take over as its CEO. The new boss has a proven record of delivering excellence, innovation, and crucially – value for shareholders.

So far, so usual you may think. But far from it. Because the struggling concern is Yahoo, and the brilliant business brain it has acquired belongs to Marissa Mayer, one of only a handful of women to take the top job in a big tech company.

The 37-year-old Mayer joins from Google, the internet giant where she has worked since 1999. And she was something of a pioneer even then, becoming the nascent company’s first female engineer, when she was made its 20th employee.

And it is this that provides both the most unusual and the most welcome aspect of this appointment. For too long women have been denied opportunities to sit at the top table in Silicon Valley. For myriad reasons – too few women supposedly following the progressive path into these businesses through engineering; an apparent culture of machismo in board rooms and from the venture capitalists; and of course tired clichés about the demands of family life on “women of a certain age” precluding them from taking the top jobs.

Well, Mayer could scarcely have demolished those preconceptions more comprehensively, arriving at Yahoo this week not only as a trailblazing woman but also as a pregnant one. She announced that she is expecting her first child shortly after the appointment was confirmed.

Against a backdrop of continuing concern on both sides of the Atlantic, certainly, over the failure of leading businesses to address imbalances in the profiles of their top executives, this development delights. Only yesterday, here in the UK, a new report was published that excoriates the legal profession for retaining a management structure “stuck culturally in the middle of last century”. Such complacency will not reward it in this one.

To be the very first chief of a Fortune 500 company and to be pregnant is a major landmark, both for equality in the workplace and for common sense about how family life complements and actually enhances businesses.

Mayer may be a “geek in a geek’s world” (her words, I hasten to add), but she is also a brilliant addition to Yahoo, a company lacking direction and apparently mired in existential doubt. It seems that after numerous attempts to find the perfect man to inspire its reinvention, Yahoo has at last acknowledged that its current crisis can only be solved by a female engineer and innovator.

And quite right – experienced, capable women should get the most demanding and well-rewarded jobs in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, or in the City of London on merit. The really significant achievement of Mayer may just be in proving that to solve a seemingly intractable problem, even one as unfathomable as the salvation of Yahoo, you need to think more boldly.

Perhaps in big business, at long last, words of received wisdom will finally be drowned out – by a pregnant pause for thought.


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