Marissa Mayer: Iconic figure or simply the face of future leadership?

Copyright JC Politi Photography

The press has been buzzing with news of the recent hire of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who, at 37, appears to be the first Fortune 500 CEO to be hired while pregnant, the youngest Fortune 500 CEO in history and only the twentieth female Fortune 500 CEO.

I read a story on CNN’s Management and Career blog about how she is also one of the few examples of successful businesswomen who “fully owns her femininity.”

What does this mean? I am intrigued by how enthralled we seem to be with this woman’s story. I understand that she is only the twentieth female to head a Fortune 500 company. And 37 is young for such a high-level position.

I certainly hope that she excels in the role and serves as a model to young women everywhere.

But the water cooler debates have been raging. I have heard discussions regarding whether Yahoo will regret its decision or whether Ms. Mayer will be able to handle the pressures, especially with a young child. And now, it seems, the press has moved on to debate her clothing choices.

As far as women have progressed in business, and there is no question that women have broken through many glass ceilings, it is clear that women still face significant gender biases in the workplace.

Marissa Mayer is being examined like a rare specimen in a museum and Yahoo is under intense scrutiny. Who is this unique creature? And what company would make such a bold decision?

I don’t see Ms. Mayer taking the helm of Yahoo as an iconic event. I know plenty of 37 year olds at the top of their careers who want children and plan to start a family after age 35. This is a trend I have discussed before, where women put off having children until they feel their career is where they would like it to be.

I am quite confident we will see more of this type of female leader in the future as the next generation reaches their potential. There was a thoughtful article called Marissa Mayer: Are the Rest of Us Shooting Too Low?, in the Forbes Magazine Work In Progress Blog about the conflict many women face when making choices about their personal potential.

With time, the media will probably continue to report on the woman’s hair and clothing – I suppose they need to report something. But I hope that the simple fact that a woman who is named CEO of a Fortune 500 Company is also going to be a mother will become yesterday’s news.

The more pertinent question is whether Marissa Mayer can lead Yahoo out of its recent slump. And if she is unable to do so, will her gender be cited as the reason for her failure? There have been several news stories questioning Ms. Mayer’s management style, so I don’t think that these questions are unfair.

Of course, these stories may come from a segment of society who generally believes that women are less competent leaders, so I will take these with a grain of salt and cheer her on from the sidelines.

What do you think? Do you think that this story deserves all the attention it has received in the press? Do you think that Marissa Mayer will be more likely or less likely to implement family-friendly policies at Yahoo? Why do you think the press feels a need to focus so much attention on the hairstyles and clothing of women in leadership positions, be they corporate CEOs or politicians? Do you think that we will reach a tipping point anytime soon where a female CEO will be less noteworthy? Why or why not? And what do you think about Yahoo’s choice to hire a 37 year old pregnant woman as their CEO at this challenging time?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like:

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Filed under Business, Career Planning, Culture, equality, Parenting, social pressures, Stereotypes, Technology, Women, Youth Leadership

30 responses to “Marissa Mayer: Iconic figure or simply the face of future leadership?

  1. I hope she succeeds! No matter what line of work a woman is in people are always looking at how she dresses and wears her hair…oh well…

  2. You would think that this would be ‘old news’ by now. How surprising it is that woman are succeeding at the same rate as thier male counterparts when we are just as educated and as I’ve recnetly read scoring igher on IQ tests. Is it still that men missing their children’s entire young life is the norm and we haven’t gotten accustomed to woman finding it neccessary/acceptable to do the same thing? We all do the best we can and I’d like to think that it is possible to do both but we all know it’s not. Not sure what the answer is to that one for her but I’m glad I don’t have to make those choices anymore. I know that I only regret the time I missed with my kids and I say this as I enjoy the benefits of many years of hard work away from them. No answers here, just more questions.

    • Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, this raises many questions, but I think the only way to start to answer the questions is to get them out on the table. Male or female, it is hard to find a good work-life balance, isn’t it? Thanks so much for reading.

  3. Apparently, the people at Yahoo thought that Marissa Mayer was the best choice over every one else that they could have placed in that position. And I say bravo for them. Hopefully she would make the work place more family friendly by allowing employees with young children to work from home if at all possible…especially during times of sickness or other family emergencies.

  4. Good post and topic. I don’t know her from Adam, so my comments focus on the fact that a Board of Directors is taking a chance on a woman who told them she was pregnant beforehand. To me, this comment taken by itself, means she must be an excellent candidate, as it would have been safer for them to move to another candidate. I am eager to see how she does and hope she knocks it out of the park.

  5. I look to a time when such hires will be taken as an everyday event and not comment-worthy. Women are not the only ones attacked for their garb or air- Prime Minister Harper is constantly berated for wearing anything other than the de rigeur suit–so hopefully this type of thing will stop on all counts.

    • Great point! We don’t hear as much of those types of comments about men in the US, but I agree, it really shouldn’t be part of the discussion for either gender. Thanks so much for reading and taking time to leave a comment!

  6. I think the whole media hype about this woman is specious and does her little justice. When listening to her speak she is funny, warm, humble and scary smart. That’s not nearly as interesting to the press, but definitely more to the point when trying to predict her success at Yahoo. The reality that informs discussions about Yahoo’s lethargy, intra-office politics and needed steps to move it forward are arguably more pertinent. Yet it feels to me that for all the steps forward that we have made, there feels like an increasing pressure to diminish or negate those advances. That to me is far more troubling than her attire or work ethic during maternity leave. Great discussion to introduce – for it encourages all of us to think of the longer term challenges that still face women in their pursuit of professional success.

    • I realize that this may have been mis-interpreted. I think your post is terrific – and raised a really important question about what the conversation has been about Marissa Mayer has been focused on. I was responding to the absence of substance about her qualifications and the emphasis on aspects of her person-hood that I don’t think speak to the qualitative aspects of leadership that should matter more..

      • I couldn’t agree more and understood completely. Sorry for the delayed response. I was on the road and in meetings all day. You are absolutely right. It is amazing how little emphasis there has been on her impressive qualifications. Or at least that talk is drowned out by talk of her pregnancy and style. I always understand you and your comments and really appreciate both! 🙂

    • Thank you!! It has been striking to me as well all the focus on this. Just a reminder that we still have a ways to go. Thanks so much for the comment!

  7. I worked for yahoo on a project and have to say they do have equal hiring policy … but also a lot of glass ceilings, (not a fan of the company), and I actually think by making a big deal of it we are saying it is something special when it should be the norm … just because you’re a woman, pregnant or not, doesn’t mean you aren’t as good at your job as a man is

  8. It’s sad that we feel compelled to scrutinize this woman and treat her differently than anyone else who had been promoted to a position of responsibility. But that’s the way the wind blows. In the end, we must judge her abilities as we would anyone else. Treating her differently when it comes of evaluating her effectiveness would indeed be discrimination.

  9. I too hope she succeeds brilliantly. The fact that she is a woman is irrelevant to her ability to do the job. The fact that her gender is commented on shows that while we’ve made some progress in business, there’s a long way to go towards equality.

  10. It’s hard to reach success when you are being set up to fail before getting in the door. The position has enough pressure, without trying to spend your days proving others wrong. I’m not sure if anyone is fully capable of reaching that goal.
    Best of luck to Marissa for success in all she has on her plate.

  11. amb

    I agree with Life With the Top Down, if a 37 year old male executive was starting a family, no one would blink. I hope we get to a stage where this isn’t considered news!

  12. I wish her much success! However, balancing work and a family will be easier for her than women with less financial resources. As someone who lived through the days of women’s lib, I am glad to see a female CEO of any company. Women have choices today!

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