Thank you, Marissa Mayer. Now don't mess this up

Yahoo's new CEO choice signals a sea change in the way women in Silicon Valley and the business world present themselves. But the stakes are high.

Marissa Mayer at CES 2012
Marissa Mayer speaking with me, Caterina Fake, Padma Warrior (not pictured) and Molly Wood at CES 2012. James Martin/CBS Interactive

commentary I am going to make you uncomfortable. I'm going to make myself uncomfortable. I'm going to talk about the intersection of leadership, gender, motherhood, and personality. More specifically, I'd like to talk about Marissa Mayer, who is a new breed of woman in technology and business and -- as a pregnant CEO -- a role model of the highest order.

I've been lucky enough to meet Mayer, the newly appointed Yahoo CEO and hopeful savior, twice. The first time made a lasting impression. I had just been promoted to editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, and I was feeling proud to be one in a handful of women in tech media leadership. I waited in a long line of ladies at an event for women in technology to introduce myself. When I reached Mayer, I told her about my role, and and I asked her to join CNET for a CES panel on women in technology .

I expected, because of her high-profile position, some combination of condescending acknowledgement and "call my agent and we'll see." Instead, I got stunning graciousness. Mayers' whole face lit up and she said in her characteristically squeaky voice, "Congratulations! That's huge! And I'd love to join you if I can." She gave me her e-mail address right there and then, and she did join us.

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The second time I met Mayer was on the panel itself , this past January, presumably just as Ms. Mayer was learning of her pregnancy. The panel included Mayer, Padma Warrior of Cisco, and Caterina Fake, who co-founded Flickr. Mayer kept to her talking points, but she came with a certain grace and, I'll just come out and say it, feminine poise that's unusual in C-level execs, and especially unusual in contrast with the brash Carol Bartzes of the world.

On that panel on that day, Mayer made one comment that stuck with me. She noted that although she didn't have children -- yet, it turns out -- she found that the best way to prevent workplace burnout is to ferret out issues that cause resentment for each individual employee, then address that single issue. In other words, she at least talks like a reasonable and thoughtful manager.

A new breed of woman in tech leadership
Here's what I'm driving at -- and it involves some stereotyping of my own people, so I'm sorry for that. But here we go: Marissa Mayer is part of a small, but growing and influential vanguard of women (including Sheryl Sandberg and Caterina Fake) who act comfortable being women in tech leadership roles and who pursue interests whether they're traditionally feminine or not. Their successes and their self possession will convince women worldwide that they can be girls and love technology, science, and business.

And the bombshell last night that she's about to have her first child in October makes that new dawn even brighter. The Yahoo board called her, she picked up, and when they heard that she's pregnant, they presumably said, "Who cares?" As she told Fortune yesterday, that's incredibly evolved.

Mayer often trots out this tried-and-true sound bite: "I'm not a woman at Google, I'm a geek at Google." Fair enough, except that she is also a woman, and a girl's girl at that. She shows up in designer gowns at major events. Her interests in art have added a certain softer delight to Google -- she's been instrumental in the Google doodle programs, for instance, Google art direction, and she played a big role in getting art integrated into Google Street View. She's also terrifyingly smart and analytical, both according to popular depictions of Mayer and my personal, if brief, experience.

And now, she's a pregnant woman in the CEO's office. To this I say: Thank you, both to Mayer and to the Yahoo board. It's time to acknowledge with actions, not words, that smart younger women and men who have families alike can play roles at the highest levels in the tech space and corporate America. Her leadership shows that you can be different in all kinds of ways, in fact: An engineer can rise to the very top, a lady can rise to the very top, a good and thoughtful manager can rise to the very top.

You're carrying an unwieldy banner. Don't drop it
I also say, from personal experience: Buckle up. The next year is going to be so very hard for Marissa Mayer. Even with her deep pockets (widely documented as many hundreds of millions of dollars), all the hired help in the world won't change the fact that she's entering into one of the most challenging 12-month periods for any young family and entering it while trying to right a company that's slowly listing into ever deeper trouble. The spotlight on Yahoo shines brightly partially because everyone loves a train wreck, and every tiny move Mayer makes will conjure critique and criticism beyond measure.

I'm writing this between packing lunches for my own kids to take to summer camp, and I'm thinking about the sacrifices that any mother or father makes each day when he or she leaves to do a job out of the home. Her son will get the flu. Her board will disagree with business choices. She will not, no matter what, be able to put herself in two places at one time.

Despite four CEO failures in the four years prior to her Yahoo role, I can already imagine the comments, public and behind closed doors, if she doesn't succeed -- the assumption that she failed because of her personal choices rather than because of poor business decisions or because of the mess she inherited.

I'm sure she can do it. But every bit as much, she has to.

 

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