Last week’s announcement that Marissa Mayer had been appointed CEO at Yahoo! while  pregnant should send a message to the Lord Sugar brigade; business leaders who believe that you shouldn’t employ women of a certain age in case they get pregnant.

We’ve been thinking about the benefits that employing a senior woman while she is pregnant can bring to a company. We’re not commenting on Yahoo!’s decision or on Ms Mayer’s reported plan for two weeks’ maternity leave (other than to confirm that in the UK, two weeks is the minimum period of leave a woman is allowed to have).  Of course, everything we say is on the basis that the woman chosen for the job is the right fit; something that the media commentary appears strongly to confirm in Yahoo!’s case.

1. You’ll have a massively loyal employee! Focus first on the likely impact on the woman you are offering the job in terms of her engagement and ongoing loyalty to the company. This will provide real, long lasting benefits for the firm.  You are saying to that woman; ‘we rate you and are taking a long term view on your impact on the firm’.  That will not be forgotten.

2. Create short term stretch opportunities for the wider team.  Managed properly and planned for, a period of maternity leave can provide real stretch opportunities for members of the team.  This is the sort of opportunity that creates employee engagement and drives creativity and productivity.  Critically, to make the most of these opportunities, there must be careful planning, objective setting and expectation management.

3. Breach a major barrier to meritocracy within your firm.  Most companies aspire to be meritocracies. Few are. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, companies are run by tall men!   Working with companies trying to create genuine meritocracies, you quickly uncover that senior decision makers believe that the whole ‘women and children thing’ is in large part responsible for gender imbalance at the top.  On closer inspection and discussion with these leaders, the truth is clearer.  It is the implicit associations that the leaders make about women having children that actually impact on recruitment and (probably more critically) promotion and development  decisions.  These implicit associations actually appear to be responsible for the imbalance at the top. Associations like: women are not as motivated or are generally ‘distracted’ after their return from maternity; levels of client service inevitably suffering from a maternity returner’s inflexible hours etc etc.

By giving a pregnant woman a top job, particularly at a time of major challenge, the organisation is sending a clear message to its decision making team. Those associations are not valid!

4.  An opportunity to create a PR buzz. This sort of thinking and decision making is still unusual enough to mean that firms taking this sort of decision have an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the mainstream; to show that they are forward thinking, possibly even visionary. There are a number of constituencies to speak to with this message. We deal with a few in the next few paragraphs: potential talent for the firm, existing employees (both men and women), clients and external stakeholders.

5. Attract ambitious women to the firm. Any woman who has assessed her own chances of advancement in her current job as being blighted by her gender and/or her plans to have a family will inevitably view your company as one where these issues do not hamper career progression.

6. A positive message to those already in the firm. Similarly, any women internally who have perceived their chances of advancement to be blighted will have a new view of the organisation. One critical thing here though (and this also applies also to the women being attracted from elsewhere) is that thought should be given to the message being received about the sort of maternity leave the senior woman is having and whether any accommodations can be made after return from that leave. Marissa Mayer’s two week maternity leave is unlikely to be attractive to the majority of prospective mothers. 

It is not only going to be the women within the firm that will be energised by forward thinking HR strategy.  A key element of employee engagement is pride in my employer; it takes the right decisions.   

7. Win clients!  Potential clients are frequently women (or forward thinking men likely to be impressed by your actions).  Particularly in businesses where services are delivered by talented professionals, a forward thinking, long term HR strategy is going to win plaudits – with (potential) clients, shareholders, suppliers etc. Get the message out and watch these relationships drive growth!