When Yahoo! Inc hired its third chief executive officer (CEO) in the space of a single year, its business woes, which one might have expected to dominate news reports, got relegated to a footnote. Yes, the new CEO will have to survive amid relentless onslaughts from the indomitable Google and Facebook, but more importantly, the new CEO is a woman. Yes, she is an old Google hand with a postgraduate degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, but more importantly, she is expecting a baby in October. In recruiting the 37-year-old Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! had turned several informal but well-established industry practices on their head.
Ms Mayer's appointment is likely to add fuel to the debate raging about how women can best negotiate the twin terrains of being a committed professional and a responsible, caring mother. In her contentious article in The Atlantic 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All', Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former policy director at the US State Department, recently argued that as long as the male ideals of long work hours and frequent travels remained default requirements, women would find the going tough. In an almost uncanny way, the Yahoo! CEO actually fits the very description that Ms Slaughter warns against: the super-qualified, super-rich elite woman whose career path is not always the right model for a woman toiling way lower down the ladder.
If no one-solution-fits-all when it comes to working women across several economic strata, then the same is true of countries. Ms Mayer is now one among 20 other women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, which accounts for a measly 4%. In India, women chief executives account for about 11% of the total, with the rider that almost a third of them may have only succeeded to family empires. In her rejoinder to Ms Slaughter's essay, New York Times editor Susan Chira points out that the arc of a career is long, and while trailblazing success (à la Ms Mayer) may elude most women, that is no reason to give up relentlessly hammering at that glass ceiling. That is sage advice, which should be true of all times and all places.