What is she wearing? Isn’t that too tight?
How is she posing? Isn’t that too provocative?
How is she "taking a break" from her demanding post as CEO? Isn’t she too busy?
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, came under fire recently for a feature appearing in the September issue of Vogue. Some referred back to the historical oversexualization of women that has kept us bound in ways that we are starting to unravel as a society and argue that Mayer is playing into stereotypes. And while that oversexualization has truthfully had nefarious effects, no one woman is all women, just as no one man is all men.
What matters about people is their magnetic leadership, their aptitude for helping those following in their footsteps, and their passion—how they choose to package that is their prerogative.
But regardless of how you may feel on the issue, this discussion is your problem, and here’s why: what you let them do to her and say about her, you let them do to you. In my first job, I was counseled to smile less and talk less to assistants (no thank you, that’s not how my parents raised me), lest I appear more junior than I already was.
I was told by people who wanted to "help" me, that although I had checked the box on the skills they wanted to see in the quarterly evaluation, they thought that I might want to cut my long hair so that I looked less young. At the end of the day, perpetrating this culture of intense scrutiny—especially as it is applied to unconventional-looking leaders—makes us all the poorer. All we are doing is continuing to validate the noxious benchmark that leaders need to look and act a certain way.
Some have claimed that Mayer’s not an accurate representation of a woman working in technology. Above all, a high-fashion woman like this could certainly not be relatable. But who's to say what a role model should look like? And when have we ever been happy with a leader’s representative realism? It’s always going to be something, and it’s time to live and let live and celebrate the increasing diversity of those among us who dare to lead and be themselves along the way.
There is no cookie-cutter leader or role model—our Levo roster comes in all shapes and sizes. Some CEOs show up in costumes to surprise passengers on their airlines (Richard Branson), others receive home-grown produce from their mentees (a la Warren Buffett), and some appear in Vogue.
By saying that leaders—male or female—have to look or act a certain way to be respected as role models, we are not only hurting those individuals but also reinforcing rigid benchmarks for the next generation of passionate, aspiring leaders, who are watching. In my recent Office Hours with Warren Buffett, he said "If you tell me who your heroes are, I'll tell you how you'll turn out."
Why not celebrate the creation of diverse leaders across the gamut, and let us choose which heroes we are inspired by?
—Caroline Ghosn is cofounder and CEO of Levo League, a thriving community of young professionals, role models, and innovative companies taking gen-Y by storm. She was recently named one of [i]Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. Follow her on Twitter at @carolineghosn.[/i]
[Image: Flickr user Grzegorz Łobiński | Marissa Mayer Photo by Mikael Jansson for Vogue]