Stop Scrutinizing Marissa Mayer: How Both Sexes Hurt Women In Business

Marissa Mayer joins an otherwise all-male panel of judges at TechCrunch NY 2013. (Photo: Flickr/Magnus Hoij)

On the outside looking in, Marissa Mayer is the picture perfect poster child of female success. Current CEO of Yahoo and former queen of Google, Mayer is perhaps one of the most highly sought after, highly discussed, and highly paid women in the industry.

But Mayer’s legacy doesn’t stop at her prosperous career. She also has a family (husband Zachary Bogue and baby boy Macallister), and — based on reports of her killer parties — a pretty rockin’ social life (she throws an annual Halloween party, complete with 200-pound pumpkins and trees made from chocolate bark).  To anyone who hears the evidence, Mayer seems like she really does “have it all.”

So what’s the catch? (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

It’s not all Google glory. Mayer is also one of the most highly criticized women in tech — and arguably the entire business community.

This month, Vanity Fair ran an in-depth profile of Mayer (it’s fascinating. If you haven’t read it yet, you should). Though it spoke favorably of her many accomplishments, it was also quick to point out her flaws — going so far as to paint her as a managerially incompetent bully with a narcissism complex and taste for the dramatic.

From a nervous vocal tic to a demotion at Google, nothing was off limits in Vanity Fair. Author Bethany McLean writes:

“Among those who worked closely with her there is an undercurrent of skepticism about her skills as a leader…A product manager who worked for her feels she eventually became a hindrance, more of a micro-manager than a help. ’All she did was move pixels around,’ he says. ‘There was huge dissatisfaction that built. She became more and more authoritarian, and she would just say no if she wasn’t in a good mood or she didn’t like the color.’ He adds, ‘I absolutely hated working for her, and you could not find a single peer of mine at Google who would work with her again.’ “

McLean goes on to highlight the absurdity of Mayer’s office hours, during which she forces dozens of peers to wait in line just to see her. The word “alienating” comes up more than once, revealing a vision of Mayer that isn’t exclusive to Vanity Fair.

Last year, Business Insider focused on Mayer’s reputation as a “nightmare,” saying:

“The [more common view] amongst long-time Googlers is that Mayer is a publicity-craving, lucky early Googler, whose public persona outstripped her actual authority and power at the company, where she was once a rising star – thanks to a bullying managerial style – but had become marginalized over the past couple years.”

And earlier this year, another publication ran an article titled, “Why I Feel Sorry for Marissa Mayer’s Baby.”

I have to admit, I finished reading Vanity Fair’s article in shock. “Working for her sounds absolutely miserable,” I thought. But then I second guessed myself. Sure, eliminating “work from home” days and forcing colleagues to wait in line don’t exactly put Mayer in the running for world’s best boss (and suggest some not-so-subtle hints of narcissism), but does she really deserve all this criticism?

Is Mayer a self-serving egomaniac? Or is everyone just jealous that she made it to “the top?”

Let’s go back to one more line from the article, in which McLean writes:

“The rules are always different for women, but Mayer’s quirks go beyond coldness.”

Ah, yes – the rules are different for women.

Mayer’s business decisions and personal life are under the magnifying glass far more than those of her male counterparts. The Daily Beast’s Jessica Grose argues it well, and I have to agree. While Mark Zuckerberg has certainly seen his fair share of unflattering press, this “knock-’em-down” phenomenon is heavily aimed toward women.

Mayer is highly scrutinized and thus unfairly criticized in everything from her managing style and acquisition strategy to her maternity leave and work-life balance.

Meanwhile, mainstream stream media outlets define women like Hillary Clinton and Kathryn Ruemmler less by their influential careers and more by their tastes in stiletto heels and pant suites.

Is President Obama’s public image dictated by his trousers? Did we hear a peep about paternity leave when Larry Page had two kids? No.

So why the one-sided focus? Simply put – women still don’t belong.

Women around the world are making huge strides in the workplace, but it’s a relatively new occurrence. Even in grown-up land (and perhaps more so), being the new kid subjugates us to a form of stereotyping and scrutiny that simply doesn’t exist for men.

For better and worse, being female comes with a “family-oriented” definition. While men have been the ones to bring home the bacon, women were expected to fry it, serve it, and clean up when we’re done. But now we’re earning it, too – which makes for a sticky situation.

Those old stereotypes linger, and women are still supposed to put their jobs last – after family, friendships, and even fashion. Whether it’s in Congress or inside a company, anything less than a compassionate, docile demeanor comes off as bitchy, overbearing, and untrustworthy.

While much of this pigeonholing can be chalked up to male-dominated workplaces, men certainly aren’t the only ones to blame. Take Vanity Fair’s look at Marissa Mayer’s career, Inc.’s article on feeling sorry for Mayer’s baby, or The Washington Post’s profile on White House counsel Kathlyn Ruemmler’s shoes — all unfair portrayals, all written by women.

Each time anyone calls into question a woman’s business skills based on her clothes, family choices, or personality quirks, they’re asking the question: “Are all women poor leaders?”

In some cases, yes. Not every woman or man is cut out to lead a business. But overall, the answer is overwhelmingly “no.” Being a woman does not make you bad at business.

It’s thoughts like these that hold women back, from the time they step foot in preschool to the times they pick a major, choose a job, and interact in the workplace. Our public discourse tells women they aren’t good enough — whether it’s through labels like “bossy” or “incompetent,” or the idea that their outfits matter more than their careers.

But step away from that narrow-mindedness and take a real look at women like Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Ginni Rometty. Turns out, women are damn good at business. It’s time to step aside and let them lead.

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