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.

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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.