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Marissa Mayer: Why is everybody so surprised?

Maybe the biggest shocker on Mayer's elevation to CEO at Yahoo? The level of surprise. It's 2012, isn't it?

By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers

August 1, 2012

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Of all the surprises to spring forth from Yahoo's recent appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO of the struggling tech company (She's 37! She's pregnant! It's 2012 and we're still debating whether pregnant women should work!), perhaps the most noteworthy is that the news is a surprise.

Women have been outpacing men in college attendance since 1981. Thirty-six percent of women ages 25 to 30 hold bachelor's degrees, compared with 28 percent of men in the same age range, according to2010 U.S. CensusBureau statistics. Women earn nearly 6 in 10 graduate degrees, according to the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools. In 2008, women surpassed men for the first time in doctoral degrees earned. Women make up 47 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

And women, it's widely known, have babies.

At some point, all of these facts were bound to coincide in some rather notable ways.

"I think it's fabulous that Yahoo hired as their next CEO a woman and a pregnant woman," says Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "I want to also note that had they not done so because she was pregnant, they would have been violating a federal law called the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. While they get kudos from me, let's also acknowledge they did the legal thing. They picked a star and she happens to be pregnant, and they didn't discriminate against her. Part of me says whoop-dee-do."

And yet, the top reader comment on the Los Angeles Times' online story announcing Mayer's appointment? "Yahoo shot itself in the foot by hiring her. Everyone that has worked with a pregnant or new mother knows how little time such people dedicate to their respective jobs. I would have sold any Yahoo stock at the first news of her prego status."

Comment No. 2? "Technology industry's toughest job. Upcoming mother. Pick one, not both. Do your child a favor, and pick the latter."

Much hand-wringing and bloviating followed Mayer's now infamous tweet, "Another piece of good news today," announcing to her followers that she and her husband are expecting a baby boy. Few would declare the can-women-have-it-all debate finished — particularly a month after The Atlantic unleashed Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" story on our weary eyeballs — but it may be time to ask whether we can afford to keep this particular debate going.

Ever-changing world

"The world of work has been changing for 100 years, in terms of loss of agricultural jobs and manufacturing jobs," says Tom Mortenson, senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. "Boys are not adapting nearly fast enough to the educational requirements of the jobs that are going to be there when they become adults. Women get it and men don't, at least at the margins."

Mortenson contends that our education system, particularly post-elementary school, is failing our boys and leaving them ill-equipped to enter college, let alone thrive and eventually graduate with job-fetching degrees.

"The much larger issue is how boys are shutting down from education — which means work, which probably means marriage or a mutually supportive kind of role — far too early in life, long before they understand the consequences of their disengagement," Mortenson says.

Indeed, 67.4 percent of men ages 25 and older were employed in 2009, the smallest share of men employed since 1948, according to "The State of American Manhood," a report by Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a monthly public policy newsletter. The median annual incomes for men peaked in 1973 and have declined ever since, according to the same report. In 2009, the median income was 13 percent below the 1973 level.

"You could say boys are at fault, but I happen to believe the school system, which serves girls very well, has failed boys," Mortenson says. "I've always said if you want to engage boys in learning, something has to blow up, catch fire, go very, very fast or require assembly."

Fair points, all. But for now, we've got standardized tests and textbook-based learning and girls outpacing their male peers at every level. Which means Mayer's detractors — of both genders — may need to accept the reality of her and her female counterparts entering and rising within the workforce, in spite of their ability to bear children.

"No one should be shocked and awed that women are breaking through glass ceilings and assuming the highest leadership positions in corporate America," Lichtman says. "People don't marvel anymore that women are in the workplace, and I look forward to the time when nobody's particularly shocked by the fact that women are the titans of industry, be they tech or manufacturing or banking and financial services industries."

Brighter future?

And maybe the kind of titans who change the rules of the game.

"If she's willing to take a different approach and talk about job sharing and bringing in other voices and barter in brain power, that's where she could really shine," says Amy Jussel, executive director of Shaping Youth, a group that studies the media's influence on kids. "She could say, 'Let's look at this with a different set of eyes that can help lift me up and we can all win in this.'

"When it comes to what we want to teach our girls, I hope we see her be a leader and not a boss," Jussel says. "A boss says, 'Go,' and a leader says, 'Let's go.' I hope she finds support from other women leaders and men leaders in the tech industry and other industries saying, 'This is an opportunity. Let's show them how this could be done.'

"Then maybe we can look at this is a cycle-breaker."

hstevens@tribune.com