Update July 25, 2016: Verizon announced this morning that it was acquiring Yahoo's core internet business, The New York Times reports. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, defended the decision — and her controversial tenure — in an open email to all employees. It's unclear if she will continue working for Yahoo after the Verizon deal officially closes in 2017. If she is let go, she stands to receive a $57 million severance package. Below, writer Rachel Sklar explores the difficult and unique position Mayer has faced over the four years as CEO of one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
This story originally ran on February 1, 2016.
Should it matter if we're fair to Marissa Mayer? I think it should. Here's why: Women are judged more harshly than men, especially as leaders. They are given less runway for success and a way shorter leash all around. When I hear the criticism of Mayer — the embattled CEO of Yahoo — I can't take it as an isolated appraisal that is meted out discretely on a case-by-case basis — because taken as a whole, women in leadership just get treated way worse than men. Mayer — who took over the flailing company almost four years ago in a highly-vaunted attempt at turnaround — has taken heat lately for Yahoo's performance. Shareholders are clamoring for her to be replaced; talent is deserting in droves; and the press is tapping its collective foot, impatiently waiting for action. Meanwhile, one of the few Fortune 500 CEOs to give birth while in office (twice) — just had twins, and everyone has opinions about her maternity leave. Tomorrow, it is reported that she will announce yet another turnaround plan, with yet more staff cuts — but Wall Street is out of patience. The sharks are circling.
Well, hold one — dive into a shark tank and that's what you get, right? And if Mayer is going to accept a multi-multi-million-dollar salary, stock package, and extended fawning press coverage in the leap from one high-profile tech titan to another, how sad are we really supposed to feel about whether people are saying mean things about her, especially when she could buy you and me several thousand times over? (You're right, I don't know you. But c'mon. She has a lot of money. It's an educated guess.) Besides, the criticism sure seems warranted. Yahoo has had trouble retaining talent, despite paying a premium for it, in eye-popping compensation deals and retention bonuses that have amounted to millions lost. And that’s not even touching on the cost of finding and integrating replacements; never mind the brain drain. It dropped its highly-touted "MAVENS" strategy (Mobile, Video, Native advertising & Social) that, when introduced last year with a flourish, was also supposed to have offset the 4% drop in company advertising revenues. Then there’s the debacle with Yahoo's Alibaba shares — widely assumed to be a non-taxable cash windfall — which had to be dropped in December, when the IRS wouldn’t rule on whether the spinoff would be tax-free. She's drawn criticism for dropping millions on lavish parties and last year's head-scratching sponsorship of the Met Ball. When all is said and done, after three-and-a-half years, and many billions spent, Mayer has not done the job she was hired to do — namely, to turn the beleaguered company around.
Is this really a person we should be spending time defending? There are plenty of other people who are actually marginalized, oppressed, and given a raw deal. Is it worth the time of any progressive feminist to rush blindly to the defense of a super-rich white woman (who doesn't even call herself a feminist anyway?).
Actually, yes. A lot of the criticism seems more harsh than necessary, with repeated references to her being an ice queen or a fashionista (that Vogue shoot!), or being an insufferable micromanager. Then there’s my favorite, that she's "no Steve Jobs" — the only tech CEO that pretty much every tech CEO references, but wrist slap for her! There was also criticism that employees lined up behind a velvet rope to take photos with her at the Yahoo holiday party (though in fairness, she was nine months pregnant with twins at the time, and also, the photos look chummy and nice).
Is it worth the time of any progressive feminist to rush blindly to the defense of a super-rich white woman?
I can hear you now. "Hey, come on Rach, I understand that lots of women have been given a bum rap in business (and fine, everywhere else) and that sucks — but Marissa Mayer has really been terrible! Her business is flailing! So it's not fair to label her critics as sexists. #NotAllMen!" Sure, imaginary sputtering bro (or even perfectly cogent and evenhanded observer!) — a lot of the criticism does seem fair. Activist shareholder Eric Jackson, one of her loudest critics, pointed out that she never put her own money into Yahoo stock, which a new CEO of a turnaround company will often do to signal his or her personal investment in making the company succeed. And according to Jackson, Mayer has sold $26 million worth of her stock options. Yikes. When you're dealing with multi-millionaire CEOs with sweet, sweet compensation packages, it's the little things. So, criticize away — I'm fine with that. As I have said before, we'll know that true equality has been reached when women are free to be terrible CEOs, just like men are! But I always like to revert back to the similarly situated test, that is to say, would a man in a similar situation be judged as harshly? And I'm trying to think of male CEOs of foundering companies who compare on that score. And really — I can't. Twitter’s ex-CEO Dick Costolo does not seem to have taken a reputation hit after leaving the troubled social media company behind; founder and returning CEO Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, has been imputed to have visionary status (Steve Jobs!), not to mention that he’s been given a nice long leash. (You're so awesome you can turn Twitter around while taking Square public!) Walking embarrassment Sean Rad, still, incredibly, has his CEO job at Tinder.
If we move outside of tech, there are even more examples. Remember the devastating Sony hack just over a year ago, which the company admitted was the result of its own lax security, and which no less than the president criticized for its handling? The Sony CEO went so far as to say the hackers "burned the house down." How many of you can name that particular CEO, as opposed to the person who did lose their job (Amy Pascal)? Here, I'll help you out: It's total non-headline-grabber Michael Lynton! Don't worry, he's fine, still CEO. He's also on the board of Snapchat. Nothing to see here, folks. And can you tell me who the CEOs of Volkswagen (emissions scandal!) or Takada (faulty airbags!) are without Googling? I didn't think so. It just seems to me like Mayer is being treated a little more harshly, and personally. There's a little more glee around her failings, a little more criticism of her personality, a little more backlash to her ambition. Remind you of any other high-profile women you know? (Spoiler alert: It's Hillary! Who keeps on having to answer questions about her likability, despite a decades-long track record and, oh yeah, 18 million cracks. Can you imagine if she was the shouty, unkempt socialist senator? Take a second to imagine Bernie as Bernice, and wonder if she'd still be inspiring all those BernieBros to such loyalty.) Here's the truth about women leaders: When the chips are down, they get less slack. It's a phenomenon known as the Glass Cliff and it is well-documented. Women have a much better chance of being promoted to save a flailing company, are prone to harsher criticism sooner, and are more likely to be given the boot — sooner — if they fail to do so. Mayer has had a decent tenure so far, as turnaround CEOs go (though not as long as Steve Jobs!), and she's clearly not above criticism.
There's a little more glee around her failings, a little more criticism of her personality, a little more backlash to her ambition.
But ousted Glass Cliff-ers are never above criticism — that's the cover for pushing them off the cliff. Female candidates aren't perfect — that's why you hear, "It's not that I don't want to elect a woman, it's just I don't want to elect THIS woman." If you think Clinton is the only candidate dinged for "likeability" think again — everyone's favorite lady-alterna-Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, has been dogged by that claim, too. So it's not about finding a perfect victim. Hi, Ellen Pao! As usual, that doesn't exist. Women are treated differently, and if we don't acknowledge it and call it out, it will just keep on happening. I don't write this out of any particular fondness for Mayer. I would definitely have preferred it if she had made the perfect call on how to take maternity leave while raising Yahoo's profits and being adored by every employee, board member, and investor. It's time-consuming figuring out whether criticism is gendered, and to what degree! (I would not particularly care about the tax implications of the Alibaba spinoff otherwise.) How many dudes do you think are sitting around wondering if they should take the criticism of some random dude CEO personally? (If they are, you know they are dudes of color.)
As Mayer prepares to face her critics, and Clinton prepares to face her voters, and you prepare to face whatever career goals you are hoping to tackle today, without having to deal with other crap — let's not forget that whatever we do, we do it in the context of a system that is way less hospitable to our success, let alone our failings. Whatever happens with Yahoo, we all deserve better than that.