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.

Henny Ray Abrams/AP/File
Marissa Mayer, who was named Yahoo Inc.'s CEO on July 16, accepts her award at Glamour magazine's 2009 Women of the Year awards at Carnegie Hall in New York November 9, 2009. Op-ed contributor Veronica I. Arreola says 'Too often women like Mayer look...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.'

“Get in a bit over your head. That’s how you grow and learn and stretch yourself.”

Marissa Mayer sure knows how to live her own 2009 quote. As the new CEO of Yahoo! and the holder of two degrees in computer science from Stanford, Ms. Mayer joins Xerox’s Ursula Burns and IBM’s Virginia Rometty as a top woman in technology with engineering degrees. Add in Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, and there is now a quartet of women CEOs at technology firms.

This is a critical number. After four, do we even count anymore? Who is the fifth to do anything?

But this victory for Mayer and women in technology is not a signal that parity has been reached. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the US is attracting, retaining, and promoting women in technical jobs. And until we do this vital work, research shows we will continue to have a problem with the number of women working in technical jobs.

A recent study reinforces this fact: The problem with recruiting women into engineering is the lack of women in engineering. It is a wicked cycle. To address it, the US continues to invest in women in science and engineering programs, like the one I direct at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and initiatives to increase and support science teachers at the K-12 level.

At a recent new student orientation, a young woman asked me if there were any girls in civil engineering. For many women, if they do not see it, they cannot imagine themselves doing it. Nationally the trend for women majoring in computer science is downward. According to the US Department of Education, only 18 percent of computer and information sciences degrees awarded in the US went to women in 2010, compared to 20.6 percent in 2006.

It takes a long time to break social norms that tell girls they can’t do math or tell women they can’t lead. Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo! should move these ideas more toward finally being history.

For years, Mayer has welcomed her position as a woman leader in technology. She exhorts women in engineering to stay in the field with her. She pleads with girls to look to engineering as a career. She embraces her nerd side. Yes, she even discusses her glamorous fashion taste in clothing. Mayer is exactly the role model that those of us working to show girls the benefits of taking calculus in high school and enduring life as the only woman at new student orientation would want.

Yet my joy at Mayer’s ascension to the top job at Yahoo! is tempered by the fact that Yahoo! is a hot mess.

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.

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.

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