Diane Francis Headshot

What Yahoo's New CEO Can Learn From Tina Fey

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The flap over Yahoo's appointment of a pregnant 37-year-old executive as its CEO is a surprising, and disappointing, re-run of Father Knows Best and Gloria Steinem footage from the 1960s.

Ladies (and gentlemen), the war has been won and the war was about giving women choices. The appointment of a new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, should have been heralded as a great achievement, but a retro remark ruined the moment.

It began when a CNBC "Oracle on the Airwaves" sniped that having a first kid was a lot of work, did she realize that and did the board of directors who appointed her realize that? The insinuation was that she could not devote herself to the company and its shareholders.

Significantly, the remark was made by a guy and not by one of the network's high-profile female anchors. It smacked of paycheque-envy.

There's no question that Mayer has her work cut out for her, but she is an engineering genius already worth $300 million. She will work as hard as 10 executives and as smartly as millions, she will have the kid and be home in 24 hours like everyone else, and she will outsource the parenting by employing hot-and-cold running nannies to raise him.

Mayer has said she will take very little, if any, maternity leave and that created another fuss. Critics say her waiver of maternity leave makes her a bad role model. This is a sensitive issue in the U.S. where mandated maternity leave is a stingy three months. But that's irrelevant because her circumstances are unique and her work-life balance is her own affair.

Feminism is about equality and choice, including the choice to waive maternity leave. As for work-life balance, that's a matter of definition: One woman's work-life balance is another's workaholism; and one sector's work culture is another's abuse.

For example, a female (or male) cannot become a CEO or partner in a law firm if unwilling or unable to match the ridiculous hours, and brain power, that the most ambitious rookie in the firm puts in. Those who don't understand that should work for a government in a nine to five situation, or hang out a shingle somewhere to serve a few pliant clients in between ferrying kids to soccer games and piano lessons. Alternatively, they can withdraw from the workforce for a while or forever. Those are the choices.

Many fail to understand that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome should not be confused. They are separate. The former requires society's legislative support, which exists, and the latter is up to the individual.

Ironically, the workplace is gender-blind already and shouldn't be the target of attempts to give women more choices. Those who work in the public sector are protected fully from discrimination and benefit from affirmative action policies. Those who work in the private sector are protected by laws, and promotions and pay are based on the ability to make money for their organizations.

Occasionally, predators and political gender-players litter the workscape. These can damage careers and require strategies. The best advice, quoted by Bloomberg this week, comes from comedian Tina Fey in her book Bossypants. She wrote:

"My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: 'Is this person in between me and what I want to do?' If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you."

If the predator stands between you and your job, however, there are legal remedies that also, if successful, yield large financial settlements in both Canada and the U.S. This also allows victims to move on which they must.

The real targets, and impediments to women, are attitudes around them and those they have internalized. Females must overcome family, social, cultural and gender factors that impede or inordinately influence and hold them back such as husbands, parents or other role models that are unsupportive; cultural or social sexism; backward teachers or preachers and harmful media, music, fashion or movie industry practices aimed at sexualizing them.

Meanwhile, Mayer is a winner and will triumph because she has no downside. If she turns around Yahoo she will make $71 million over five years and if not, she also wins because Yahoo's CEO job is a revolving door with obscene benefits. Her two immediate predecessors were pushed out but one left with $10 million and the other with $7 million.

So the only valid question about her appointment this week should have been about Yahoo's board and its recruitment failures and excessive payouts. It should certainly have had nothing to do with their decision to hire a superstar who happens to be pregnant.