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Marissa Mayer Finally Acknowledges That Sexism Exists

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG

Marissa Mayer broke through a glass ceiling: when she was appointed as CEO of Yahoo, she was the first woman to take on that role and one of just 20 women serving as chief executives at Fortune 500 companies.

But for most of her career she’s refused to acknowledge the importance of her gender or the barriers she may have faced that are unique to women, particularly in the technology field. She has long said she is “gender oblivious” and argued that when she was working as Google’s first female engineer that she was “not a woman at Google,” but “a geek at Google.”

She even maligned feminism itself, saying in a video series about famous women, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist… I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.”

But her worldview may have shifted during the turbulent time she’s spent as CEO at Yahoo. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she acknowledged, “I’ve tried to be gender blind and believe tech is a gender neutral zone but do think there has been gender-charged reporting,” referring to the press coverage of her tenure in that role.

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Mayer was explicitly brought on at Yahoo at a time when it was dealing with slowing ad revenue, big layoffs, and a slumping stock price to turn things around. And shareholders only gave her about three years before they all but called her efforts to clean up that mess a failure. Mayer had been devoted to keeping Yahoo as a single business entity and focusing on its own products, but last year activist shareholders began agitating for breaking up the company and selling pieces off. http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/10/19/3713612/men-ignore-hard-evidence-of-gender-bias/And those shareholders have now gotten their wish: on Monday, Verizon announced it was buying Yahoo’s core internet business for $4.83 billion, ending its run as an independent company and splitting it off from big investments in Chinese giant Alibaba and Yahoo Japan.

Mayer’s future at the company is now uncertain. She told the New York Times, “I plan to stay. I love Yahoo and I want to see it into its next chapter.” But she also said it was still up in the air as to whether she would have a role at the new company.

Beyond being potentially pushed off the glass cliff — the phenomenon where women and people of color are given leadership roles during difficult times and then moved aside when they can’t right a sinking ship — Mayer faced a constant stream of gendered attention. When she became Yahoo’s CEO while pregnant, there was speculation as to whether she could really do the job. A shareholder told her in a meeting, “I’m a dirty old man and you look attractive,” while a business professor publicly said Mayer didn’t get fired in 2015 only because she was pregnant with twins. In an employee ranking of the best chief executives, Mayer showed up nearly dead last.

Mayer’s acknowledgement of potential sexism this week focused more on the media than her own industry. “We all see the things that only plague women leaders, like articles that focus on their appearance, like Hillary Clinton sporting a new pantsuit,” she told the Financial Times. “I think all women are aware of that, but I had hoped in 2015 and 2016 that I would see fewer articles like that. It’s a shame.”

But while Mayer and many other executives may like to think of technology as a meritocracy, where all you have to do is be smart and hard working to get ahead, there is plenty of evidence that women and people of color face huge hurdles that don’t stand in the way of white men.