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Business Leaders Speak At Fortune Global Forum In San Francisco
Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer speaks during the Fortune Global Forum on November 3, 2015 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Marissa Mayer Was Never Going to Be Your Feminist Hero

Jan 10, 2017

Four and a half years into her tenure as Yahoo!'s top dog, CEO Marissa Mayer will leave the troubled internet company once its sale to Verizon is finalized, rebranded and as aimless as it was when she took over.

Mayer's time at Yahoo! was better known for its missteps than its shareholder victories. The acquisition of more than 50 companies—including the social media site, Tumblr, for $1.1 billion—did little to nothing to boost its bottom line, while investors grew more dissatisfied by the day. (For more on Yahoo!'s decline in the Mayer years, read this eulogy written by my colleague Taylor Tepper.)

But Mayer will just as likely be remembered for the disappointments that had less to do with the bottom line (don't feel too bad—she'll have that reported $50 million+ severance package to lessen the sting). It does the 41-year-old a disservice to consider her career only in terms of her gender, but it's true that many, unfairly or not, heralded her as a feminist hero upon her ascension. A young, smart, capable woman was going to save one of the most well-known companies in America—all while pregnant. Vogue, eager for a representative in America's west coast nouveau riche, splashed her across its pages. Women in tech could discard their black turtlenecks and embrace Mayer's colorful Oscar de la Renta dresses. Think pieces abounded.

But as with any high-profile woman who swiftly finds herself in the spotlight, there was an immediate, unavoidable tension between her actions and the actions her feminist cheerleaders wanted her to take. Mayer brought the hammer down on telecommuting, bragged about the hours and hours she spent at the office, and eschewed maternity leave in favor of even more work. She said early in her tenure at Yahoo! that she didn't consider herself a feminist.

This wasn't exactly what people who advocated for workplace equality had in mind. Sure, it was good to have a woman at the top in the testosterone-fueled and capital-rich Silicon Valley. But if she wasn't an advocate for other women, what exactly was being accomplished here? Was the fact that she was one of Silicon Valley's one-percenters enough to claim as a victory for all working women, even if she didn't care for the designation?

Inexplicably, many were aghast that a woman who had risen to the top of the heap in tech's capitalist playscape was not the feminist hero they envisioned. As if the "first" female in any field is ever truly representative of the Everywoman. Mayer didn't glide into the boardroom and fill half of it with women; in fact the percentage of women in Yahoo!'s upper management echelons decreased between 2015 and 2016. Frankly it was unfair to put the pressure on her to do so, while the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezoses share no comparable public responsibility.

That's because, just as Hillary Clinton was never going to single-handedly defeat sexism in America, it is going to take more than one highly-visible female tech CEO to create gender diversity and equality on a larger, sustainable scale. If you are one of the few women to make it to the top of the boy's club with all of the old rules still intact, it's because you were playing by them. You weren't breaking them to help future generations get ahead.

Some detractors have and will blame her failure to turn the company around on her gender, and of course they're wrong. Poor leadership isn't attributable to just men or women. But there's a lesson, too, to not rest our hopes for gender equality and female empowerment on the heads of a single woman, whether she's Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Elizabeth Holmes, or even, it's true, Beyoncé. If women want to be equal, we'll stop focusing on figureheads to save us all and start breaking the rules the boys set up ourselves.

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