As someone living and working in the Silicon Valley, I often feel like I can’t escape the tech chatter. Until I’d moved out to the West Coast, I’d never met anyone who introduced himself as the CEO of a company I’d never heard of; here, it seems de rigueur for random 20-something dudebros to “have an app on the line” or a way of storing data in the cloud that will totally revolutionize the datosphere or whatever. Even the big stuff, like Digg getting bought for $500,000, barely merited the 10-minute conversation I overheard from some irritating Electronic Arts interns on the train to work.
But the hubbub surrounding Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, is still somehow managing to emerge above all the noise. “She’s blonde,” one of the interns said meaningfully the other morning. “You know. Blonde blonde.”
For those of you not forced to listen to two 19-year-olds in ill-fitting suits gossip about whatever they read on the TechCrunch Twitter that morning, I’ll fill you in. On Tuesday, Marissa Mayer, notable for being Google’s 20th employee and first female engineer, took a position at Yahoo as CEO.
Ordinarily, this honestly wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I certainly didn’t know the name of Mayer’s predecessor, Ross Levinsohn, without at least a cursory Google. Considering Silicon Valley’s notoriously sexist atmosphere, though, Mayer is now being viewed as a possible symbolic shift in attitudes toward women in powerful tech positions. And I’m not sure how to feel about that.
Don’t get me wrong, here. From my uneducated outsider’s perspective, Mayer seems more than qualified to handle the position. She worked at Google for 13 years, overseeing a lot of the early developments that now allow drunk jerkwads to find burrito places at 3 AM and to search for shirtless pictures of the kids from "Teen Wolf" instead of actually doing work. So I, personally, owe her a lot.
She was also named one of Glamour’s Women of the Year in 2009, is one of four women on Wal-Mart’s board, and seems very capable of taking the reins of Yahoo’s limping tech-horse.
And, oh yeah. She’s tooootally hot, bros.
As that Forbes article points out, the news of Mayer’s move had barely crested a few hours before a whole slew of Redditors had turned out to make comments about RIM jobs and “I’d fuck her with my dick.” To Redditors’ credit, there are also a ton of comments on there disparaging the sexism, pointing out things like:
“Gotta love that everyone needs to imply that they're only hiring her as eye candy on the sinking ship that is Yahoo, not because she has a master's in computer science specializing in artificial intelligence…Nope, just tits and ass.”
It’s worth noting here, I think, that Mayer is hardly the only CEO in the Valley to get scrutinized on her looks. When the New York Times profiled some of San Francisco’s unmarried tech executives, for example, they described Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore as “sultry” and Wordpress founder Matt Mullenweg as “boyish blond with snowboarder stubble.” But even an article that deliberately tried to dabble in the aesthetic shallows still relied mostly on the featured dudes’ accomplishments and salaries rather than their baby-blue eyes or cut-glass jawlines.
And, as even the Times somewhat sheepishly acknowledges, they’re all guys. At the time of the profiles’ writing, there weren’t enough single female tech-executives to make the list. There’s a major difference, though, between the kind of hoodie-wearing dudely tech shlub trope that the Times plays with and the suspicion with whom many single high-powered women are regarded. As we all know, single dudes in tech are just too accidentally busy for relationships; single women are consciously making the choice to give up a chance at love down the line.
Luckily (ish) for Mayer, she married husband Zachary Bogue just before her feature in Vogue and her appearance on Glamour’s Women on the Year list. Considering the kind of response she was getting to her emergence on the mainstream tech sphere back in 2009, I’d be curious to see just how many mouth-breathy fan-letters she would’ve gotten as a young, single woman.
In addition to being conventionally attractive, Mayer also has the gall to be six months pregnant. It’s a little too early in the game for the media to explicitly start the “Can she have it all?” game, but that hasn’t stopped a huge percentage of them from gamely giving it a go. Personally, I give it two months before they start making comparisons between Mayer “mothering” her dying company instead of her soon-to-be-born son.
All things considered, Mayer seems to be determined to maintain her obvious femininity throughout the media scrutiny. In this interview, for example, she talks about her love for baking and for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, neither of which seem to typically figure heavily on most (male) CEOs’ radar. Also, thanks to her 2009 profiles in Vogue and Glamour, her love of fashion (specifically for Oscar de la Renta) has become semi-famous. As harbingers for an anti-“brogrammer” shift in the Silicon Valley, we could certainly do a lot worse. Because yes, Mayer is attractive. She’s also clearly smart as hell and largely too busy dealing with her new job to engage with some of the stupider corners of the mass media Interweb machine.
That said, however, it always makes me nervous to hang the indicators of a cultural improvement on one person’s shoulders, particularly if that person didn’t ask for them in the first place. Yahoo isn’t exactly busting through the tech ranks right now, though it did have a slight revenue gain in the second quarter. If it fails, I highly doubt that Mayer will be left to pick up the pieces among her employees. Instead, she’ll likely be hung out to dry as an example: of why women can’t be mothers and CEOs, of why women shouldn’t be in tech, or, hell, why pretty women should be left to their Oscar de la Renta collections.
But as long as there are only a few women in executive positions in the Silicon Valley, every one will probably be scrutinized as a symbol for the anti-sexism tides. And, in turn, I’ll hear every single one’s hair color discussed in excruciating detail on the morning Caltrain.
Kate is a woman working in tech, but she is almost certainly not a Girl in Tech. Read revelations like these and more at @katchatters.