"People are looking at you as a role model as well, looking at you as an example," Savannah Guthrie told Marissa Mayer on the Today Show. "Has that been difficult to deal with?"
Looking slightly flustered, Mayer repeated a response she had given to a previous question about her age: "Again, I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at it or even thinking about it. I’ve really been focusing on the products and what we need to do."
It's understandable that Guthrie took an opportunity to ask that rare bird, the female CEO of a large tech company, questions about her unusual situation. But it's also understandable why Mayer consistently returns boiler-plate responses to such inquiries. Responding to them could send her down a rabbit hole that runs deep:
What's her opinion of stay-at-home mothers?
What's she doing about the income disparity between women and men?
Should paid maternity leave be mandatory?
How is she supporting women in the developing world?
Will she be lobbying for this bill that creates better work conditions for women this year?
And when can we expect her book about women in the workplace and the subsequent dates on a speaking tour?
Mayer's male peers at big technology companies—Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates—aren't bothered with this line of questioning. ("Mr. Jobs, is it difficult to be seen as a role model for men?" Sounds wrong, doesn't it?) And it's not just because they're men. It's because they're busy running companies.
Theirs aren't even ailing companies. Marissa Mayer has taken control of a struggling Internet giant in an attempt to turn it around. Neither she, nor any human, has the time and energy to be both the CEO of Yahoo and the CEO of Women Inc. Being a feminist warrior is clearly not the gig she chose. "I certainly believe in equal rights," she explained in an interview with PBS last February. "I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t think I have the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that comes with that. I think it’s too bad, but I do think feminism has become sort of a negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes from positive energy of that than negative energy."
Despite her hesitation to champion the feminist cause, Mayer’s decisions have been consistently discussed not on the basis of whether they are appropriate for a CEO, but whether they offend her role as a representative for working women everywhere.
Her short maternity leave stirred up a national debate. "Marissa Mayer—A Man in Women’s Clothing?" asked one mommy blog (really) after the CEO asked her employees to come into the office. "When a working mother is standing behind this, you know we are a long way from a culture that will honor the thankless sacrifices that women too often make," a Yahoo employee told All Things D.
The business case for bringing employees together in a physical space—the same case that led Steve Jobs (who had four children, by the way) to design his offices in a way that encourages cross-department mingling and led Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette (also a parent) to say the company had as few telecommuters as possible—was all but lost in the discussion.
There are talented people, both women and men, who have taken on the tasks of motivating girls to greatness and developing better workplaces for working parents. I am glad they have. Marissa Mayer has chosen to take on the momentous task of saving one of the largest technology companies in the world from irrelevance. If she can turn Yahoo around—making decisions not only as a woman but as a CEO navigating the business world as it exists today—that will be quite enough.
Yes, Mayer is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company in America. Yes, she’s one of the only women I can name when I’m listing leaders at large technology companies (Holla, Sheryl Sandberg). And Yes, she’s taken on the unenviable task of turning Yahoo around with a newborn baby at her hip. But young women do not look up to Mayer because she has somehow adopted them as her cause, which she seems reluctant to do. Like her employees, they respect Mayer because she is good at her job.
Let's let her do it.
[Image: Flickr user Adam Tinworth]