When most women get pregnant, they tell their families and closest friends.

Melissa Smith, the new CEO and president of South Portland-based WEX Inc., told the company’s board of directors and executive leadership team. Then she blasted a companywide memo to 1,400 employees.

Smith’s decision to make a very public statement about a private family matter underscores the pressures that women in powerful business roles face in balancing their work and personal lives.

“Men tend not to disclose that they are starting families,” said Leslie Forstadt, a child and family development specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono. “As a female CEO, she realized she was bucking the norm. It would be great if it wasn’t news that people in positions of power are trying to balance work and family issues, but work and family integration is an ongoing discussion.”

In her memo to WEX employees, Smith, 45, said she is due to have her first child in September. She plans to work until her due date and then take a limited time off for maternity leave.

 

 

Smith gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal, to which she also sent the memo about her pregnancy, but declined to speak with the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday.

In an era when people debate “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – the title of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine that went viral online – and when Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg exhorts women to “Lean In” – the title of her book discussing how women’s progress in leadership roles has stalled – many people still wrestle with the question of how to combine family and work.

Women in high-profile leadership roles often have to do it in the public eye.

When asked why Smith announced her pregnancy in a corporate email, WEX spokeswoman Jessica Roy said the payment-processing firm found little precedent for how other companies handle news that affects both the CEO and the company.

“Interestingly, we looked around for examples of other CEOs of publicly traded companies who had announced their pregnancy and we could only find Yahoo as a precedent,” Roy said in an email. “Melissa wanted employees to hear the news from her first, and a company email was the most efficient way to do that given our locations across the globe.

“Given her role as CEO, and the fact that she would be taking maternity leave in September, she wanted to be as transparent as possible from a business perspective,” Roy said.

WORKING AT CLOSE-KNIT COMPANIES

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced soon after she took the job in July 2012 that she was six months pregnant, touching off a nationwide debate over how women balance work and their personal lives.

Mayer, who became the only CEO of a Fortune 500 company to take the job while pregnant, drew intense scrutiny for taking only two weeks of maternity leave and for building a nursery next to her office at the same time she ended Yahoo’s telecommuting policy. Less than a year after having her son, Mayer expanded Yahoo’s parental leave policy.

Smith’s husband, Brian Corcoran, president of Shamrock Sports & Entertainment in Portland, announced the news of his impending fatherhood to his employees on Wednesday.

Addressing such a personal issue in such a public way was unusual, but Corcoran said Smith had an obligation to be open as the head of a publicly traded company.

“It’s very challenging, in a business environment, to separate personal and professional agendas. It may be a private matter, but first and foremost we wanted to get the blessing and support of the people around us,” Corcoran said. “I think the common thread between WEX and Shamrock is that we live in very close-knit corporate communities.”

Corcoran said he, too, plans to take some time off from work when the baby arrives.

“Family first. I’m blessed to have a very talented, extended team at Shamrock that will allow me to do whatever I need to do to take care of Melissa and our baby-to-be,” he said.

Forstadt, at the UMaine Cooperative Extension, said she applauds the couple’s decision to be so open because it encourages continued debate over how families handle such issues.

“It’s not just an announcement, but the opening of the door to a conversation that will continue,” Forstadt said. “A lot of people will be watching how they integrate child care into their busy schedules. Today, we have an expectation that our personal lives will be swept under the rug. This is a model of how we become real people.”

MORE SCRUTINY OF WOMEN?

In November, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, announced that she and her husband had had their third child, making her the only member of Congress ever to give birth three times while in office.

“As a working mom and a representative in Congress, it’s certainly a challenge to balance the demands of a busy job with the responsibilities of a young family,” Rodgers said. “But it’s no different than the challenge other working parents face when trying to achieve the same balance. It requires a tremendous support system, an ability to prioritize, and a true passion for what you do every day. And a large cup of coffee doesn’t hurt either.”

Smith, the WEX CEO, said each woman should decide how she handles her pregnancy and maternity leave.

“How I actually conduct my maternity leave, how things happen (afterward), I think that is very personal to your own situation,” she told The Wall Street Journal.

Jean Hoffman, chairman and CEO of Putney Inc., which sells generic veterinary pharmaceuticals, said women in traditional corporate environments have pressures that male corporate leaders often don’t face.

Hoffman, who founded the Portland-based company in 2006, said she has juggled work with raising her two children by carving out a more entrepreneurial path. Hoffman said she has never faced questions about her roles as a CEO and a parent.

“In a corporate setting, it is tougher for women – in many companies the rules are set by men,” she said. “I do think women in executive roles are more scrutinized than men.”

Regarding Smith’s pregnancy, Hoffman said: “It sounds like a joyous announcement. I don’t know why it’s news.”

Since May 1, when WEX announced that Smith would take the helm on Jan. 1, the company’s stock has gained nearly 40 percent. Shares of WEX fell 2.7 percent Wednesday, closing at $91.85 on the New York Stock Exchange.

During Smith’s leave, WEX’s former CEO and current Executive Chairman Michael Dubyak will take a more active role in the business.

“I’m excited by the prospect of becoming a mother, and thankful for the support and encouragement I received from the executive leadership team and the board of directors when I shared the news with them,” Smith said in the companywide memo.

She said she watched her mother raise three children and continue to work, so she has no doubt that she can keep pace at work until the baby arrives.

“I was raised under this kind of belief of ‘Why not?’ ” Smith said. “Why can’t you do all of that?”

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @JessicaHallPPH