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It's not the first time a woman has become the CEO of a large company. So why is Marissa Mayer's appointment as the CEO of Yahoo such a big deal? Is it the glamour she brings to the dull boardroom, with her Oscar De La Renta gowns? Is it because she's Google's geek goddess? And it can't be just because she's a CEO mother-to-be with a 300 million dollar net-worth, can it?
Whatever the reason for this Marissa mania, I'm as thrilled as the next woman. Because I see a huge opportunity here, and I'm all for one more crack in the glass ceiling. And Marissa's appointment can be used as an inflection point to highlight certain issues that go beyond just Yahoo or Google.
Which brings me to my first point: it's a good time to be a woman CEO. This is true especially in India, where we have seen woman power in politics, banking, even manufacturing and, yes, in the technology sector too. But we need to see more success stories emerge. The handful of women CEOs we have today does not adequately reflect potential. It's reassuring, however, to see the pipeline getting stronger and it's in our collective interest to ensure this trend continues to gather momentum.
However, here's a sobering fact: of the Fortune 500 companies, only 19 (that's less than 5 per cent) have a woman at the top. Mayer is now the 20th. Typically, in the early stages of corporate careers at these companies, the ratio is more or less 50-50 between men and women. In the mid-level, the ratio gets skewed to a shocking 80-20 in favor of men, and at senior levels - the 'game changers' stage - it's an abysmally low 5 per cent.
Clearly, many women drop out of their professions just as they are peaking. A few years into their careers, they find themselves at the classic crossroads, where the pressures and conditioning of convention and society make many step down from the ladder. This has to stop;and the onus is both on the woman and on her environment. That includes family, spouse, the organisation and society too. They must look to ensure that she is able to pursue her passions and live up to her professional potential without being made to feel guilty for her choices. Mayer's decision to announce that she was pregnant was a very tough and personal one, but she made that call fully aware of what its implications were. She was also prepared to cope with the demands of the job, and her decision to cut short her maternity leave, while controversial, is illustrative of the tough attitude I'm talking about. Women must be prepared to make these calls and be prepared to stand up for what they believe in. Of course, one should learn how to prioritise, and learn how to cope with the pulls and pressures of the business world, with its time, travel and training demands.
Life is a marathon, the long term must be kept in focus. This is one of the most important aspects of a successful career. The road can be long, and sometimes difficult, and will demand every ounce of an individual's talent, time and determination. It's critical that you know how to pace yourself and take the rough with the smooth. You have to know how to keep the fire burning;the interest and passion sustained. Here, organisations too must play their part. Women don't need special privileges but nonetheless have different needs. Corporations and colleagues must be made more sensitive to these differences in order to get the best out of their women stars. And we need to find innovative solutions if we are to have many more Marissas.
As a woman, and as a corporate executive myself, juggling career, travel, in-laws, a son, my husband and society, I can empathise with the pulls and pressures of family and business, of expectations from others and expectations of oneself. Some useful advice to proffer to young women in early phases of their careers would be: stay positive, stay passionate, try to prioritise, don't regret anything too much or brood excessively, and you can have it all. Just like Marissa Mayer and many others like her.
Moreover, perspective matters greatly. For a woman to harmoniously balance a sound family and a successful professional life is definitely a tougher challenge than it is for a man. We can argue endlessly over this but it really is an undeniable fact.
The modern career woman often finds herself in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation when trying to navigate this space. The reasons are many, from old sociocultural attitudes to legacy laden environments that are just not suited to get the best out of her. With Mayer's appointment, and many other such, these issues will hopefully get highlighted and be resolved over time.
With the baby due in October, Mayer will certainly deliver in the coming quarter, but the question that is being asked around the world is, can she deliver for Yahoo in subsequent quarters? I'm betting she will.
The writer is a senior vice-president with Wipro and is the company's seniormost woman executive
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