Why it won't be a problem if Marissa Mayer stumbles
Yahoo! Inc. appointing Marissa Mayer as its new CEO is being hailed as a victory for women in technology, women business leaders, and even for mothers in the workplace. But it is not a signal that parity has been reached.
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Following the news of her new job, much of the chatter on Twitter was about how long she would last there due to Yahoo!’s incompetence as a company. The dialogue serves as an early sign that Mayer’s gender is not an issue for the Yahoo!-using public, and it’s a sign of the challenges she faces.Skip to next paragraph
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I study women’s leadership in organizations, and I am apprehensive about Mayer taking this position. Too often women are the cleaners of the world. Not only at home with our second shift duties, but increasingly so in business as well. History tells us that women advocating for our right to vote were successful in part because they said they could clean up the corrupt political process.
More recently, after Wall Street sent the country into the Great Recession, reports showed that companies led by risk-taking men (and possibly more testosterone-fueled decision-making) made more bad investments than those with women at the helm.
In discussions over increasing women’s presence in the workplace, we are touted as being better team players, better listeners and better at thinking long-term.
If Mayer has indeed been called in to clean house, a challenge awaits her – but it’s one that Mayer is eager to tackle.
Some may hesitate to call her a role model for girls and young women because she rejects the feminist label. In an interview earlier this year, Mayer affirms her support for equal rights and joins the “I’m not a feminist, but...” club. I would add a couple other “but” statements: She may not call herself a feminist, but she acts like a feminist in her support of women in technology, and I hope she is aware of the feminist shoulders she stands on. She may not embrace the feminist label, but that does not diminish the awe she inspires in the students I work with as they dream of where their computer science degree can take them.
Mayer says she thinks positive energy works better than negative energy, and I could not agree more. I just wish she knew all the amazing feminists I work with who strive to do exactly what Mayer wants: to fill Silicon Valley with as many women as possible.
It is clear that Mayer has a tough road ahead of her. If she fails at righting the sinking Yahoo! ship, it is unclear if she will be blamed. If she succeeds, she can write her own ticket from here on out. Because of Mayer I will hang on to my Yahoo! email a bit longer and hope she spiffs up my beloved Flickr. I will also pass on all the news – good and bad – she makes for my students at to read. And I won’t be the only one.
Mayer is a role model and will remain one no matter what. She will show students how to succeed and how to get back up after a fail. There’s too much to fix at Yahoo! for her to not stumble at least once. I hope she does a few times. Too often women like Mayer look too perfect – too unattainable – thus increasing girls’ idea that only perfection leads to success. Computer scientists know that often failure leads to success. So, Marissa, fail away: Give the girls behind you something to solve.
Veronica I. Arreola is the director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender’s Women in Science and Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.