Yahoo Nabs Marissa Mayer, Nicks Glass Ceiling. Or Not.

Yahoo Nabs Marissa Mayer, Nicks Glass Ceiling. Or Not.

By: Shelly Kramer
July 17, 2012

Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer.

Recent news that Yahoo nabbed Google’s top female executive Marissa Mayer, making her one of the most prominent women in both corporate America and Silicon Valley, is, well, a big deal. Mayer’s status as employee #20, its first female engineer and someone whose Google career spanned 13 years, most recently leading up Google’s local and location services (including overseeing Google Maps, Google Earth and the 2011 acquisition of Zagat) all served to make Mayer a key player on the Google team.

Mayer’s addition to the CEO ranks of the Fortune 500 make her the 20th woman to hold that role, or 4% of the Fortune 500 leadership. Definitely not a time to break out in song, since “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” clearly isn’t applicable. But maybe we’re getting there? And maybe this is a good move on Yahoo’s part.

It’s reported that, when recruited by Yahoo, Mayer advised the board she was pregnant with her first child, an announcement that, apparently, didn’t stand in the way of her hiring. Mayer attributed that to “evolved thinking” on the part of the Yahoo board. Another broken pane in the glass ceiling? Or not? An interesting question posed not only on Twitter as the news broke, but also in Helaine Olen’s Forbes post entitled “Marissa Mayer and the Glass Cliff.” Says Olen:

The term ‘glass cliff’ was coined to describe such situations as Mayer’s Yahoo appointment. The theory comes from the work of British academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, who demonstrated several years ago that women are most likely to get appointed to top gigs when the chance of failure is highest. The two researchers contend that sexism causes those in power to appoint women to these risky positions because they don’t want to risk tainting a prominant (sic) man with the stink of failure. Examples of this phenomenon include Carly Fiorina’s tunure (sic) at Hewlett-Packard and, possibly, Meg Whitman’s more recent appointment at the very same company.

As an aside, has Forbes completely abandoned any sort of editorial oversight on the content it publishes? Two spelling errors in one paragraph (above) make me never want to read (or trust anything published in) the publication again. [end rant]

Does editorial sloppiness make you feel that way, too?

It’s no surprise that Yahoo has been struggling. Shareholders led by hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, whose firm owns a 5.8% share of the company, ousted Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson for lying about his education. At that time, Loeb called the company one of the worst managed companies he’d ever seen, adding that it lacked vision, leadership and values. He also mentioned that Yahoo had missed every important social trend that had occurred and had much catching up to do.

A bit of a personal aside? Two years ago, Mayer was a speaker at SXSW. I’ve long been a fan and made it a point to attend that session. A woman in tech, who loves a lot of the same geeky stuff that I love, in a senior management position at Google—that’s my kind of session. I’m not being honest if I didn’t admit to being more than a little disappointed. As a frequent speaker myself, I know how important it is to captivate an audience (or at least try) with not only a great presentation, but a great presentation style, too. Both were lacking during Mayer’s preso at SX. Her slides were nothing to write home about (read: boring) and her presentation style left so much to be desired. It was kind of like getting the chance to meet your favorite movie star and finding out they were a dud IRL. I was so bummed.

This, by the way, totally differs from the experience Forbes’ contributor Carmine Gallo described when she heard Mayer speak, so I can only hope that I happened to experience Mayer on an off day. I’d love the chance to see her again and see that “exceptional storyteller” ability in action.

I digressed. I remain a Marissa Mayer fan and hope that if the Glass Cliff theory has any basis in fact, she does what so many of us do—pushes up her sleeves, kicks butt in her new role and proves the naysayers wrong. In spite of the goings-on in her personal life. Funny thing is, I can’t remember the last time a guy was hired in an executive capacity and questioned about his ability to perform because a baby was on the way.

  • Throughout history, there have been those who have been “given a shot” by those who expected them to fail – only to turn out to be more spectacularly successful than the brightest predictions. There have also been those relegated to the history books as ‘the reason XXX failed’ after having said yes to captaining a sinking ship.
    I think Ms. Mayer may just have what it takes to be the former. I’m certainly rooting for her!!
    (And seriously, if having kids were an impediment to being a CEO? Fairly sure 99% of the F100 CEOs would be out.)

  • ShellyKramer

    I’m with you, Lucretia. And have often been “handed” jobs that people thought I would fail at, mostly because I’m a woman. And I took great pleasure in showing them just who they were underestimating.

    I am, however, finding this conversation in the “mom blogger universe” and the propensity to judge harshly, quite annoying.

    I miss you!

  • What I haven’t seen yet are the articles talking about what a loss this is for Google. My impressions of Mayer came from those moments when she was in the spotlight, being promoted/shifted to a different position within Google. And every time, she was leaving some aspect of their business that had improved.

    She has a golden track record, and as far as I know she has never been questioned as being some sort of token or “pretty face.” But it makes me wonder, Shelly… Are you a little more disappointed in her speaking style/ stage presence than if she had been a man? The underlying assumption is that a man who is boring or lacks dynamism must be good with numbers, or brilliant as an engineer.

    (p.s. — Marissa Mayer is a brilliant engineer, and has shown great abilities to lead teams and manage projects. She might be exactly what Yahoo needs, IF it can change its culture. And THAT is the aspect where Mayer is suspect… Shelly, I think I articulated it a little bit differently and connected a couple of extra dots, but if she can’t inspire

  • ShellyKramer

    I agree that no one has mentioned what this means for the GOOG, Ike, and it’s a pretty big deal. At a time when they are feeling fierce competition from The Face.

    I will say this – Marissa might actually be a great presenter. I’ve read elsewhere that she is. And was so very disappointed in her lackluster performance at SX.

    And I suspect that she’s not only a brilliant engineer, but perhaps great at team building and inspiring people to be/do their best. After all 13 years in a number of really visible roles at Google, making a number of initiatives very, very successful … well, she didn’t do that alone.

    It will be very, very interesting to see where this leads.

  • So you’re suggesting that the board of a publicly traded company chose one of the most prominent women in tech to run their company in order to set her up for failure? Really? Or is there something else I’m missing in the series of unconnected thoughts this article is?

    I’m not trying to be combative. I just don’t get it.

  • The glass cliff idea pains me. I can’t imagine people are that manipulative. Wait. Never mind.

    On the editorial question…what the heck happened there? Those aren’t tough words to spell. In fact, spell check would have picked it up. Wow.

  • If I was as successful and high-profile a business leader as Marissa Mayers is, I would get very tired of constantly having to answer questions related to my gender and family planning decisions.  At what point does the responsibility to “be a role model” become a burden that actually prevents high-potential leaders like this from being as successful as they could be?  What if she wants to be seen not as a symbol of a glass ceiling or cliff or what women engineers can achieve — but simply as a brilliant engineer and business leader?

  • Hmm, then what would you say about another Forbes article that reports she’s the “Hottest CEO Ever” or the litany of  articles that continously list her looks, cool apartment and her cupcake recipe as “what you need to know” about Merissa? Glass ceiling indeed.

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  • Mary Cahalane

    Every time I read about a powerful businesswoman who is a mother or about to be a mother – and talk centers around whether she can manage both – I wonder about our entire culture. As you point out, Lucretia, male CEOs have often been parents, but I’ve never heard their ability to both parent and run a company questioned.

    I’d like to see us valuing parenting more AND expecting that both parents are equally responsible. We might think we’ve moved on, but all too often, the expectation is that children are still mostly mom’s job, and therefore her attention to work will be something less.

    I wish her luck. And lots of female company in years to come!

  • ShellyKramer

    Well said, Mary. I feel the same way!

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  • The glass cliff argument sounds too far-fetched. Many male CEOs have spectacularly failed and people suspected that the day they took office too (Leo Apotheker at HP?). 

    I have never seen Marissa Mayer in real life, but she has been an extremely prominent person throughout the growth of Google and almost every single person in tech in Silicon Valley has very positive perception of her – nobody will blame Yahoo for hiring her. Of course, Ms. Mayer is not stupid. She very well understands the challenges, but willingly chose to take the huge step up to be the CEO of a public company.

    It’s common to see less experienced people take calculated risks, when they get a chance to do something amazing and puts them in the spotlight, while more ‘experienced’ people hesitate due to the downside potential. Very few people would blame Ms. Mayer if Yahoo continues to fail and she would still establish herself as a CEO material for any company. If it’s even a moderate success, she benefits hugely. What’s there to lose?

    I hope both Yahoo and Ms. Mayer succeed, as the Valley (and tech consumers) only stand to gain, while the diversity experts continue to do hairsplitting analysis on any news!

  • ShellyKramer

    I’m with you, Alex. Marissa is smart and capable. And I’m betting she’ll either do a fantastic job — or decide that it’s not worth the effort and leave — but that she knows full well what she’s getting into. And is up for the challenge.

    Anything else, all the baby business, matters not to me.

    Thanks for coming by!!

  • A majority of Forbes content is self-published by the contributors. Thus, answering the question regarding editorial oversight. Nada.

  • ShellyKramer

    I know. Which is most obvi. Hate that!

  • t1oracle

    Meh. Being a father is easy. You donate sperm and then you get on with your life.

    (joking BTW…)

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks for the laugh!!

  • t1oracle

    Honestly though, most career driven men aren’t worrying too much about being fantastic fathers. They will be judged by their financial success, not how many diapers they change, or play recitals they attend. As long as they pay the nanny they will be looked upon with admiration.

  • ShellyKramer

    Which is completely and totally NOT the case for working women who also happen to be mothers. We get judged on both our abilities in the boardroom and in the nursery. Sigh.

  • t1oracle

    True, however trying to live based on the judgment of others is a not really living. Each and everyone of us decides what sacrifices are acceptable to us. I personally think the father that neglects his children for financial success is despicable. American society in general lets him off the hook. As wonderful as that may seem for him initially, in the end his children will see things differently.

    I don’t care what society thinks, I care about doing what is right and focusing on the things that really matter.  I want to be successful, but I also want to one day be a good father unlike the one I was stuck with. I will not be measuring the success of that based on society’s impression of me.

    I believe everyone should remain true to their personal values and beliefs, and not look outwardly for acceptance. Every decision in life involves sacrifice, and each of us has to decide which one’s we are going to make.

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