Sure, Marissa Mayer made it through the glass ceiling, landing the top spot at Yahoo in 2012, but waiting for her on the other side was a never-ending stream of gender-fueled criticism and commentary.
Until Monday, she’s never really addressed it.
In interviews, Mayer ― who is one of only a handful of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 ― would typically say gender wasn’t a problem for her, or in tech generally, an odd remark considering the industry stats that show tech to be a male-dominated place that’s often unfriendly to women.
Then, on Monday, after it was announced that Verizon was paying $4.83 billion for Yahoo and that Mayer’s future as leader of the company was a question mark, she finally cracked. In an interview with the Financial Times, she called out the media for its sexist coverage. (Verizon also owns The Huffington Post.)
“I’ve tried to be gender blind and believe tech is a gender neutral zone but do think there has been gender-charged reporting,” she told the Financial Times. “We all see the things that only plague women leaders, like articles that focus on their appearance, like Hillary Clinton sporting a new pantsuit. I think all women are aware of that, but I had hoped in 2015 and 2016 that I would see fewer articles like that. It’s a shame.”
We needn’t feel too sorry for Mayer, who stands to earn $57 million in severance if she leaves Yahoo. (Falling off the glass cliff has never looked so comfortable.) Still, other women in tech read that coverage, too ― and if tech truly wants to welcome more of them into the upper ranks, the industry needs to figure out how to deal with a female CEO.
But it wasn’t just the media that viewed Mayer through the gender lens.
Shareholders, analysts, professors, other women, pundits ― all focused on Mayer in a way we simply don’t see happen with men who are CEOs. Do you know how much time Bill Gates took off from work when his kids arrived on the scene? Has anyone ever interrupted a shareholder meeting to call Warren Buffett hot, or accused a guy of only keeping his job because he was expecting twins?
From the relentless coverage of her pregnancies and her capabilities as a mother to the constant attention to her looks, Mayer was always a woman CEO.
“I’m a dirty old man and you look attractive,” one shareholder told Mayer at a meeting in 2013. A business school professor told Bloomberg the only reason Mayer didn’t get fired in 2015 was because she was pregnant.
One analyst dropped a 99-page presentation arguing Mayer should be fired ― just days after she gave birth to twins, an especially difficult time for her to respond to such criticism. Considering the amount of time it takes to draft such a long document, it would seem that the timing was a bit curious.
Some criticized her laugh, others called her out for micromanaging. (Sure, a few people called Steve Jobs a micromanager, but the broader story was that he was a genius who was obsessed with the details.)
And then there was an endless stream of commentary on Mayer’s decision not to take a long maternity leave. She was expected, for better or worse, to be a role model for all the women in tech.
Monday’s comments seem to indicate that Mayer’s view on women in tech has evolved.
Back in 2015 she told Steven Levy: “I never play the gender card. ...The moment you play into that, it’s an issue.” She even said: “In technology we live at a rare, fast-moving pace. There are probably industries where gender is more of an issue, but our industry is not one where I think that’s relevant.”
Perhaps she’s feeling more emboldened to talk now that her mission to turn around Yahoo is closing out. Mayer might have more to say, and certainly we’ll be listening. With so few female CEOs in the industry, her words could have real impact. Let’s hope she keeps talking.