Marissa Mayer’s Ambition Problem

The problem isn't a tech titan posing like a supermodel. The problem is a powerful woman being unwilling to own up to her ambition.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Yahoo! Chief Executive Marissa Mayer listens in a Startup Battlefield session during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012.

Posed like a mermaid stranded on a stick of gum, the Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer‘s photo-shoot for Jacob Weisberg’s Vogue profile has ignited major controversy in the Internet henhouse. Is it feminist for a powerful woman to pose for a fashion magazine? Is it feminist for a CEO to care about how she looks?

But these questions are beside the point. It’s not about whether she should or shouldn’t have worn those house-arrest stilettos. It’s not even about whether powerful women are “allowed” to be beautiful. The problem is that, in the piece, Mayer doesn’t own up to her own ambition.

(MORE: Anna Holmes on Vogue Couture in the C-Suite)

Even if Mayer weren’t holding an iPad emblazoned with her own face, the Vogue piece still makes her seem like a tech princess. Despite Weisberg’s best efforts to describe her grueling work habits, Mayer still describes her success as almost effortless. “It’s not like I had a grand plan where I weighed all the pros and cons of what I wanted to do,” she told Weisberg, “It just sort of happened.”

It’s a misguided attempt at modesty, but it’s the same “little ol’ me” rhetoric that Mayer’s friend Sheryl Sandberg is trying so hard to stamp out. And it’s the same fairy tale reasoning that girls have internalized for generations; girls don’t “do” things, things “just happen” to them.

But that’s not the only sprinkle of fairy dust in this piece. Mayer has a huge frog in her backyard. She has wall decorations listing her favorite things. She plays Bejeweled Blitz on her iPhone. She likes to vanish in the middle of parties. Weisberg describes her hair as “flaxen.”

Most of all, Mayer seems to embrace success but deny ambition, an attitude that is difficult to pull off without the help of a fairy godmother. “I didn’t set out to be at the top of technology companies,” she said. “I’m just geeky and shy and I like to code.”

Her colleagues are quick to point out her work ethic and her unique talents for her job, and they effusively describe her many contributions—which amount to a “transformation” of Yahoo. But the piece has barely a peep from Mayer herself about her ambitions, her drive, or the things that motivated her to the top.

And her reticence is irksome. She is one of only 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500. Doesn’t she owe it to us to tell us how she got there? Sheryl Sandberg’s whole Lean In organization is focused on owning up to ambition, speaking out, helping women share their stories so that a younger generation can learn from them. Shouldn’t Marissa Mayer pay it forward, too? She doesn’t need to start her own movement, but in a profile in a major magazine, it would be nice to get a little insight.

It’s true that not everybody who has a corner office has clawed their way there. In business, perhaps more than anything, there is always an element of luck. It would be equally simplistic to say that Mayer willed herself to the Yahoo helm with sheer force of ambition. But when talking about her career, I would rather she err on the side of haughtiness than helplessness.

The problem isn’t the presence of fashion, it’s the absence of candor. Fashion doesn’t preclude substance unless we let it. But by allowing her modesty to make her a passive player in her own story, and by insisting that her career “just sort of happened” to her, Marissa Mayer casts herself as a princess instead of as a trailblazer.

50 comments
Ideation
Ideation

Yahoo business mail has been trashed......I think they are loosing a lot of customers....

czydiamond
czydiamond

When Ms. Meyer took over Yahoo I noticed an immediate improvement in their site. Many more stories in print, not just an annoying video with a 30 second commercial. The censorship of the comments seemed to have stopped. (except for the bleeping of naughty words). The site seemed to have improved greatly almost immediately.  As time goes on the old Yahoo seems to be creeping back. Maybe some of the old guard have gotten some of their influence back. 

kelvin.hanratty
kelvin.hanratty

what utter tosh. She's no obligation to anyone. The simple fact of the matter is that she worked her arse off & knows her shizzle.

Apostate
Apostate

Most ambitious people (most people in positions of power, that is) aren't forthcoming about their ambitions, any more than most people are forthcoming about, say, their darkest sexual fantasies or their true financial situation. So I don't blame Mayer at all.

EmmaS
EmmaS

@charlottealter This article is garbage. It's not adding anything to the conversation. In fact, you could have written it in the comment section of the vogue article online as your very limited point of view. It's like you just want to pick up something to criticize, without any basis in fact. You are the type who likes all feminists to be fat lesbians, which is probably why younger women like Marissa do not want to be associated with feminism. Think before you write this drivel next time.

REINVENTIONist
REINVENTIONist like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Vogue profile neglects to mention that Mayer's most important stepping stone was a 3-year intimate relationship with her boss, Larry Page. She took an old school shortcut up Google's corporate ladder. Such hypocrisy from a woman who says "she has a hard time seeing gender."

Ideation
Ideation

@REINVENTIONist This was not even mentioned by that feminist writer of the article....where's the honesty?

EmmaS
EmmaS like.author.displayName 1 Like

@REINVENTIONist guess what? You're a female sexist. Stop attributing female success as sleeping her way to the top. You have your own issues to attend to. Your comment is also inaccurate by the way. She worked, not slept her way to the top.

NicoDetourn
NicoDetourn like.author.displayName 1 Like

@REINVENTIONist That seems like an "old school shortcut" to character assassination. What exactly are you accusing Mayer of? Are we supposed of think less of her? Assume lower competency, or ethical standards? How exactly is this hypocritical -- other than how raising the issue is itself an old school double standard at play?

Ideation
Ideation

@NicoDetourn @REINVENTIONist Its true she was in a deep intimate relationship with Larry Page of Google who gave her many out of turn promotions...all of us at Google knew this.....facts are facts! It's still the fastest way to the top for women....

MHourback
MHourback

The Vogue profile neglects to mention that one of Mayer's stepping stones on her way to the C-suite was a seat on Walmart's board of directors. http://walmart1percent.org/2013/08/23/glowing-marissa-mayer-profile-in-vogue-omits-controversial-walmart-affiliation/


EmmaS
EmmaS

@MHourback also wrong. She sits on multiple boards and they play very little part in her other work, by definition. Board membership can be an obstacle, not asset, for a CEO because of conflicts of interest.

MHourback
MHourback like.author.displayName 1 Like

@EmmaS @MHourback I didn't mean to overstate the significance of Mayer's Walmart seat to her Yahoo elevation. It seems likely, though, that Mayer saw experience at Walmart as something that would be helpful to her career. Turns out that Yahoo came calling very shortly after Walmart nominated her, so that became something of a moot question. But the larger point I wanted to make is just that Mayer's ties to a very controversial company were omitted from this Vogue profile and I think it's a topic that merits attention.

Jimtac
Jimtac like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

After reading the article I felt that Mayer came off as a person who genuinely felt like she wasn't doing anything special or working especially hard to get where she is. I feel the same way about the successes in my career, and have been accused of working too hard to make things look easy. The thing is that I never notice the extra hours that I put in at the office because that's just how I work, and rather than having a grand plan to claw my way to the top of the corporate ladder, I go where things take me. It's not that I don't put in the time and effort, but rather than it being a situation where things "happened to me", things just happened to line up in a way that allowed me to take advantage of them. knowing all of that, and recognizing that Marissa Mayer is far more brilliant, talented, and dedicated than myself, it comes as no surprise to me that she is as successful, and feels like it was just her being in the right place at the right time getting her to where she is.

suzieis
suzieis like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

Dear @charlottealter Marissa Mayer is an unusually brilliant and committed individual.  Which is why she is so successful.  And she owns that.  What is your problem?

DanaGiles
DanaGiles like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

Get this author some bread and cheese...her whine lacks something to give it some balance.  Everything about this article smacks of either rampant "How dare you even TRY to look sexy!" elitist feminism or "That B**** is more popular than ME???" high school mean girl pathetic.  MS. Alter, are you really THAT jealous of a woman who looks beautiful, is highly intelligent and incredibly successful?  She has no obligation to tell any of us anything, we're not her Board of Directors and, to the best of my personal knowledge anyway, not her shareholders (at least in my case).  What Mrs Mayer is doing has worked for her, and if she does succeed in turning one of the original internet giants around, for the rest of us as well.  I guess looking sexy offends you...poor baby.

MarcBrazeau
MarcBrazeau like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

TO: Successful Women
FR: Time

RE: Surrender Dorothy

Please stop what you are doing. Do not try to do something else. It is of no matter.

We will hound you mercilessly no matter what you do. You have been warned.

PRgem
PRgem like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

This article reads as whiney and childish, a young and naive girls' opinions about a very successful women's career. The fact that Mayer is being slandered as a "princess instead of as a trailblazer" is rude and seemingly contradictory to the authors feminist voice. The simple fact that this article is written, or reads as if it is written from a feminist perspective, yet attacks a smart, successful and powerful women blows my mind. Isn't the goal of feminism to promote females of this caliber? And if it is indeed the goal, then why is Atler criticizing Mayers' success? Mayer is handling her "trailblazing" promotion with all the grace and style that is expected of a smart, powerful and successful women. The reason women like Mayer's get to where they are is by acting in such a way that their arrogance is in check. In my personal opinion I would much rather read articles where the subject shows an air of humility rather than arrogance. 

NicoDetourn
NicoDetourn like.author.displayName 1 Like

@PRgem As someone who who has always ID'ed as feminist, I don't really think the author (at least in this article) really has a "feminist voice" so much as she is simply employing commonplace feminist concepts to produce a confused and internally contradictory piece of feminist click bait. It's a nice gig. This is what feminism is today: a category of magazine writing, a publishing genre, an entertainment category, a writer's career track, finger-in-the-air pop culture criticism, paint by numbers political analysis. Where do I turn in my badge?

paramendra1
paramendra1

Her photo shoot did not bother me. I think she looked very beautiful in the picture. Her work is stuff of legend already. 

memoimeme
memoimeme like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

I found the Vogue article totally liberating.  She thinks she's having the time of her life working at midnight, 8 months pregnant. For her this is normal and fun, and I totally get that.  I read the article and just felt a weight lift off my shoulders.  Some people have called me crazy ambitious in my life and it surprised me too.  I wasn't being modest, I just do what I do and I love it.  Like some people call running a 10K ambitious, others think it's a daily work out.   What I love about the Vogue article is that a person who is very unique and dresses in pretty dresses with flaxen hair can be an amazing business person.  She's an inspiration.

blunot78
blunot78 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Did Mayer have some Great Ambition she's just not fessing up to? I'd guess not. Consistent with her story on how she ended up at Google, she veered towards the challenges she felt least qualified for, wherever they took her. Her "ambition", as  you say, was to be the very best at whatever she was doing. The rest followed. Bummer eh?"

DBritt
DBritt like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 6 Like

How many male CEOs would be taken to task for representing themselves modestly?  This is absurd.  She can be whoever she wants.

bneal617
bneal617 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

If she is someone who takes no credit and is modest about her rise, that's her style. It's obviously worked for her, although she reportedly works a gruelling schedule. Likewise Sandberg's style is her own. Why is it necessary to pick apart these women whose public personas have been exposed by their success? They are not going to change because we pick them apart. Better we should ask ourselves why are we so interested in each woman's personal style, and so ready to shoot them down. 

qfinck
qfinck like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

It appears you missed the point of the article Charlotte Atler. She didn't plan on being where she is today. No one plans how they are going to get to the top. She went out and worked hard, showed talent and capability proving she belonged at the top and success followed. She didn't whine or complain about being a woman in tech and how that makes her special. She just worked hard. People seem to have forgotten hard work combined with competence does get rewarded. 

Dulouz
Dulouz like.author.displayName 1 Like

Mayer has lots of talent and tact, she doesn't feel oppressed.  Sanberg looks much more desperate, instead of creating and contributing, Sandberg demands, bullies, intimidates and blackmails herself into career positions.  If Ms. Sandberg wants  CEO position, she can start her own company.

CharlestonChu
CharlestonChu

Mayer and Sandberg may "Have it All", but they didn't get it by being shy and geeky. 

Aeropage135
Aeropage135

It is absurd that Mayer is allowed to siphon off the talents of thousands of actually-talented engineers at Yahoo, for her financial gain and narcissism adventures.   Perhaps she doesn't talk about how she got where she is because there is no connection between that path and a basis to say she earned it.  She is utterly nondescript as a supposed tech leader, and clearly has no vision for Yahoo beyond "buy random companies that I've heard of".

RoxannaMishradEdwards
RoxannaMishradEdwards

But is that everyone womans dream? or for that matter any persons dream. I am just so smart and beautiful that people just recognized me as a leader without any ambition. Who me, noooo,  well ok, I can lead you. What me? pose in vogue, no, well ok. me a CEO , ok, if I must. Its fake and it diminishes her rise to the top.......I don't know her, but the more I learn, the less I seem to like. Hopefully one day a woman CEO won't be such a rarity, that we will have to pay attention to one who seems to want to be admired as much for her beauty and style as her brains.......hopefully, soon...

davesbigpicture
davesbigpicture like.author.displayName 1 Like

Both she and Sandberg are there, OBVIOUSLY, because they are Jewish and have those race-based connections continuously, throughout life.  Why not own up to it?  Otherwise, this article is like a version of "the emperor has no clothes."  Hey, anybody .... really? .... Why are Jews more than 33 percent of the ACCEPTED applicants to Harvard each year?!!!  Wow!  Profound.

DavidBell
DavidBell like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Since Ms. Mayer was hired at Yahoo!, the number of negative profiles written by women has really surprised me.   I would think that other women would be happy that one of their own rose to the top by virtue of her talent and drive.   Instead, there seems to be an incredible amount of jealousy.    She's bright, works hard and is, reportedly, one of the top technical people in the business.   Why can't we celebrate her success?

Draconian
Draconian like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 8 Like

If this article was written by a man it would be slammed as being incredibly sexist.

RoccoJohnson
RoccoJohnson like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 7 Like

"Doesn’t she owe it to us to tell us how she got there?"

She doesn't owe anyone a damn thing! Not every woman wants to camp out on feminism, and why does she somehow "owe" it to women to be brash, arrogant and outspoken? Some women want to live their lives with balance, not caring to be identified by just one area. Although I'm a man this analogy is still relevant to this conversation. Years ago I became weary of the "So what do you do?" conversation and posturing between men at gatherings. I'm not just what I do, I have other layers as well, and I choose not to be defined by the work I do anymore. I'm a father. I'm a loving and respectful husband of 28 years. I have hobbies. I volunteer with hospice. I mentor students. I provide care for my ailing mother-in-law. My life is multi-tiered, and the mantra I've asked my wife to hold me to is "Don't let me become a one-dimensional man. I know, and have worked for plenty of strong, highly successful women, and I've found that many of them espouse the same values. Most of them are strong and decisive, prone to sensible, pragmatic leadership styles, yet at the same time some of them can be soft, feminine, approachable and maternal in appropriate surroundings. Yet somehow this seems to violate the feminist code of what's acceptable.

Perhaps Marissa Meyer is just choosing not to be one-dimensional. I'm not anti feminist—I absolutely agree that women should have equal rights and opportunities as men, but sometimes feminists are their own worst enemy. The sense of entitlement displayed by this author galling. She demands that Meyer tell other women how she got to where she is, but is it not pretty common knowledge how she got there by now? Figure it out people, there's no one fast formula for success out there. Meyer does not owe it to be the spokesperson and public face of feminism.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Isn't there also the possibility she's telling the truth?  That being smart and working hard (plus of course natural ability) eventually led her to the top of a meritocracy?  It's not as if she seized the Yahoo CEO job through some palace coup.  Did she just wake up one morning as CEO?  No. But she could certainly have gotten there by being good at her job and doing the right things.

starlit108
starlit108

@bryanfred1 You seem to have not read the article.  The author is saying she DID get there by being smart and working hard and doing the right things, but that she's failing to talk about it. 

Our culture doesn't like women that actually have ideas and plans.  We instead want to read about lucky, pretty fairy princesses, and Mayer is playing the role perfectly, acting like something she clearly is not.

DavidBell
DavidBell like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@starlit108 @bryanfred1 What Ms. Mayer decides to talk about is entirely her own business.   She doesn't owe the rest of us anything, except a solid technical platform at Yahoo!.

RoccoJohnson
RoccoJohnson

@starlit108 @bryanfred1 

So what, that's her prerogative if she doesn't want to talk about it. She doesn't owe you, or anyone else that. Get over yourselves.

Pythagorean
Pythagorean like.author.displayName 1 Like

I respect her more because of her modesty, and the fact that she keeps some stuff to herself. She's not some antihero because she doesn't blab about every detail of her life. Stop influencing women like this. Seriously, go on a date with a 20-something girl in NYC and you'll notice it's all "me, me, me, I'm so special and unique, blah, blah, blah."

DavidBell
DavidBell like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Pythagorean This author seems to want the female Donald Trump.   No thanks.  One of him is more than enough.   I'd much rather she show us how good she is instead of telling us about it every day, like Trump.

starlit108
starlit108

@Pythagorean You are also contradicting yourself.  The article plainly says Mayer is all about  being "special and unique", and that is precisely the problem.  She is acting like a fairy princess like any 20-something, instead of describing her plans, talents and ideas.  Being "special and unique" is probably NOT how Mayer got to where she is.

RoccoJohnson
RoccoJohnson like.author.displayName 1 Like

@starlit108 @Pythagorean 

Being special and unique IS probably exactly what got her to where she is. She obviously stood out from the crowd, and perhaps it was her unwillingness to be loud, spiteful, entitled and a mouthpiece for feminists that got her their. I support the message of feminists, it's their delivery that's so obnoxious and wearisome, and this article and author are the perfect embodiment of that.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Do I detect the presence of the "green-eyed monster"? "Doesn't she owe it to us to tell us how she got there?" [To the CEO position at Yahoo]. No, Charlotte, she doesn't owe you, me, or anyone else an explanation of how or what she does in public or private. Just call it Blond Ambition.

starlit108
starlit108

@buffalo.barnes102 How pathetic that you must think anyone who wants to see a better world for women is "just jealous".  You are making petty and belittling remarks rather than actually thinking and addressing the issue.  Blonde Ambition is not what most of us women are looking for in today's world and it isn't from jealousy - its from a desire for REAL power.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@starlit108 @buffalo.barnes102 

Quite the contrary, Madame. I am the father of a 21 year old daughter and I encourage her at all times to "go for what you know". Stop whining about looking for power and go out and get some. Reading whining and back-biting articles like the one above won't help.

DavidBell
DavidBell like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@buffalo.barnes102 @starlit108 As the father of a 37 year old daughter, I wholeheartedly agree.  My daughter went after what she wanted and achieved it.   Gender did not enter the picture.