"Can women have it all?" Every time I hear this question I think back to my childhood in the 1970's watching the Enjoli commercial, my first look at the career woman, frying the bacon, in the business suit and the evening gown - how can her hair be that perfect?
18 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In the technology vertical there are 3 - lower than almost all other verticals. A common theme for successful female technical executives: they are not married nor have children while their successful male counterparts have both. In the 1990's as a woman in technology, we came to the conclusion that women who really wanted the corner office had to make a "choice". Finding a female technical executive who has "made it" with a successful career, child and husband was as rare and hard to spot as Bigfoot at Starbucks.
The latest debate on the decades-old topic began with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook at Davos in 2010. Although Sandberg is not a technical woman, she has been a strong advocate for this rare and often ignored group. Her role at Facebook and outspoken opinion makes her a boon for YouTube. Sandberg reflects on her roles as executive, wife and mother and asks for social change to create more balance within families and in the workplace. “We all lose because of this [imbalance],” Sandberg says. “We limit women’s ability to contribute in the workforce and, even more importantly, we limit men’s ability to contribute at home.” Since this very public conversation with Arianna Huffington, Sandberg has spoken many times on the topic telling women around the world, "I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6, and interestingly, I've been doing that since I had kids." Obviously, the rest of us were doing something wrong. The debate on what we were doing wrong began. Many in the community thought the answer was at Facebook and I saw my friends applying for positions in droves. They wanted the dream too.
In June 2012, the Atlantic Monthly published a manifesto by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" which kicked up the hornet's nest. “If we didn’t start to learn how to integrate our personal, social, and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.” Slaughter blamed feminism as the culprit. For a moment I felt better, I am not doing it wrong, it's feminisms fault! Wait a minute...if it weren't for feminism, I would be in the steno pool like in Mad Men. Something isn't right here. The debate between Sandberg and Slaughter played out as bloggers used their quotes against each others line of reasoning. Then a new notion came out, what do two elite women who probably have never cleaned a toilet know about working women much less technical women?
Now comes Marissa Mayer, the first woman engineer hired at Google and now the new CEO of Yahoo and mother-to-be in October. Finally a technical woman in the conversation! She is quoted "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it." while she pulls off a miraculous transformation over at Yahoo!. This has never happened before! A Board of Directors of a publicly traded company has hired a pregnant woman as CEO without CEO experience. Is this an example of the Glass Cliff? Or, is this progress?
As people debate whether Mayer is crazy to take this position (even before it was public she was pregnant), I argue she took the risk because there was no way Google would ever consider her as a CEO and if she wanted to take on this role, the time is now. The Glass Cliff is in play. What is the Glass Cliff you ask?
An HBR article defines it when women have a better chance of breaking through the Glass Ceiling when the organization faces a crisis. More women than men accept risky positions and they often end up on Glass Cliff.
Past (and present) examples of Glass Cliff situations are the female CEOs of Hewlett Packard, Lucent and Alcatel-Lucent, WHSMITH, Sunoco, Pepsi and Yahoo, all elected during tough times in previously male-led companies. Glass Cliff and Glass Ceiling are not seen in companies with a history of female leaders.
So, is this a Glass Cliff or is it progress? Will Mayer show us how to "have it all"? Will she be able to handle those sleepless nights with a colicky baby and cranky board members during the day? Time will tell. I personally am rooting for Marissa Mayer. Yahoo! needs you and technical women around the world finally want to end the debate once and for all.