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Is a new era born? Yahoo hires Marissa Mayer... who's pregnant

Lucy Tobin asks if Silicon Valley is about to score a victory for working mums over here

If an employer can't ask a woman at a job interview whether she's planning to have kids, they just won't hire her. That's the corporate world according to Lord Sugar, star of BBC TV's The Apprentice.

He strolled into a storm of controversy with his views on working mothers, which included: "If someone comes into an interview and you think to yourself 'there is a possibility that this woman might have a child and therefore take time off', it is a bit of a psychological negative. If they are applying for a position which is very important, some employers might think 'this is a bit risky'."

Not Yahoo. The US technology giant has just poached Marissa Mayer, previously of Google, as its new chief executive. Ms Mayer is six months pregnant. When her first child is due, in October, she will be celebrating her three-month anniversary in the top job.

The US headhunters hired by Yahoo were apparently not bothered about her mother-to-be status. The tech star, said to have played a major part in building the Adwords algorithm that provides the majority of Google's revenues, said that the Yahoo board "showed their evolved thinking" when she first told it of her pregnancy last month. It even moved its September board meeting, scheduled to be held in New York, nearer to Ms Mayer's California home.

It could be BlackBerrys in the birthing suite too. "I like to stay in the rhythm of things," she says. "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."

Is the British workplace as enlightened? Not quite, according to Elin Hurvenes, founder and chair of the UK's Professional Boards Forum. "I can't think of a single example of a pregnant woman being hired as CEO of a major British firm," she says. "But clearly Yahoo is taking a long-term view — a pregnancy doesn't go on forever, and childcare arrangements must be in place. It shouldn't be a big deal. [Ms Mayer] is also taking the long-term view that it's an exciting position, and the fact that she's pregnant doesn't change that."

But it does change things for many British employers. Glencore chairman Simon Murray echoed Lord Sugar's comments last year when he said: "Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means what I'm absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they're going to get pregnant and they're going to go off for nine months?"

Little wonder campaign group Maternity Action claims that 30,000 British women a year lose their jobs as a result of becoming pregnant.

Yahoo's move is hardly de rigueur for the US employment market, either. America's blogosphere has its mouth agape at Yahoo's move. The US is one of the few developed countries with no enshrined right to paid maternity leave, and only about half of first-time mothers are able to take any paid leave after childbirth. There are fewer women on boards in the US than in the UK - and Britain's corporates are a way off hitting a government target of a quarter of FTSE 100 boards being made up of women.

Gay Huey Evans, a non-executive director at Aviva and the London Stock Exchange, spent two decades working in banking in New York. "To me this was spectacular news. [Ms Mayers] is young, female, and has this medical condition – and I hope she proves to the world she doesn't have to be an alpha female," she says.

"This shows the board could recognise that a woman can have something to offer, work hard, take on intellectual challenges and be able to manage through them alongside coping with the demands of time of a family. It's a massive step forward."