Marissa, the Mouseburger and being a Ms. in Media
Much has already been written – and will continue to be written – about Marissa Mayer’s recent appointment as CEO of Yahoo! Mayer’s ascendancy to the Yahoo! throne - at the young age of 37, very pregnant, planning a mere three week maternity leave, and raking in an estimated $70 million cumulative salary package – has rekindled the blogosphere debates around women, technology and corporate leadership.
The questions still remain: Why aren’t there more women in leadership positions in technology companies? Why aren’t there more women corporate CEO’s in general? Is our educational structure still one that overtly or covertly discourages girls from entering STEM fields (remember the huge controversy several years ago when the talking Barbie doll came out, and one of her pre-programmed lines was, “Gosh, math is so difficult!”)?
And, of course, Mayer’s own hiring at Yahoo! has sparked divisive commentary aimed just at her. What type of role model is she setting for other young mothers by saying that she only needs three weeks of maternity leave? As one of the wealthiest women on the planet, she can clearly afford all of the child care that she will ever need, but do her actions set expectations of a work/life balance that the average working woman could not possibly be expected to emulate? As someone without any track record of C-suite management or corporate leadership, was Mayer hired solely BECAUSE she is a woman? Did Mayer’s celebrity status in the technology world influence a decision that could have been better made by looking to the ranks of women in technology with better skills but less name recognition? ARE there such women in the technology sector?
As the yin-yang of the world so often unfolds, this debate continued in full swing just as a woman pioneer and similarly divisive icon of her generation passed away at the age of 90 this week: Helen Gurley Brown. Best known for reinventing Cosmopolitan Magazine and redefining (some said for better, others for worse) the image of the single American woman, Brown always marched to her own music.
I had the privilege of sitting next to Brown at the New York Landmarks Conservancy gala in 1995, when she was awarded Living Landmark status at a very fancy, very expensive black tie dinner. I remember that dinner very fondly. A mere 73 years old at the time, Brown arrived for her honor in her traditional miniskirt and black fishnet stockings. Sitting next to me, she sat down and introduced herself by putting her hand on my arm, looking me very directly in the eyes, and saying, “Young man, I do hope that you are planning on flirting with me tonight.” How could you not love that?
When dessert (profiteroles) arrived at the conclusion of a very satiating dinner, Brown declared to the table at large, “I love these, but I’m just too full to eat them now.” At which point she popped open her jewel-studded Judith Leiber purse, and tossed the profiteroles in one by one – covered in gooey, dripping chocolate sauce – into her purse. I love that memory.
The New York Times, in its obituary of Brown, was a bit less kind in its recollection of her being designated Living Landmark status. Acknowledging that Brown coined the term “mouseburger” to refer to herself and other “plain” women, it wrote, “Like many landmarks, she had much restoration work done, which she spoke of candidly: a nose job, breast augmentation, face lifts, eye lifts and injections of silicone and fat into her face to keep wrinkles at bay, among other procedures.” Elsewhere in the obit, an equally catty line: “She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.” Meow.
Amongst the long list of professions attributed to Brown, one that is mentioned several times in the various tributes to her this past week is “blogger.” At 90?! Absolutely. Brown was always a visionary – even if her vision didn’t match that of her peers. And, she knew the power of the intersection between technology and media. In fact, earlier this year, Brown donated $30 million jointly to Columbia and Stanford Universities to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
Which brings us back to another intersection – that of Marissa Mayer, Helen Gurley Brown and women in technology. At first blush, one would not consider Brown to have been a woman technology leader. But, she was. She understood the power of technology to be transformative for the causes in which she believed, and she used and adapted it in the course of her 60+ years as a media star. And, through her philanthropy in the last year of her life, she laid an educational foundation through which others could develop those same skills.
Whether Marissa Mayer succeeds at Yahoo! or not, her appointment and the ensuing debate which it has created underscores two important points:
First, we need to expand our societal definition of “women in technology.” It is too easy to think of that concept and then go only to the corporate technology world. And, think of the places which have NOT had much of a women’s C-suite presence (most of them), compared to those which have (EBay, Hewlett-Packard, Google, a few others). But, the technology field is so much bigger than the corporate parks dotting Silicon Valley. The educational, health and not-for-profit technology worlds have traditionally been well represented by women CEO’s (and we won’t get into the reasons for that here – from work/life balance to lower base salaries – that’s a whole other discussion).
ZeroDivide has been run by women since its inception; several of our key grantee partnerships, from Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco to Reel Grrls in Seattle, are not only run by women, but have missions devoted exclusively to the empowerment of women in technology-based fields. San Francisco’s very first city Technology Commission was headed by Jan Masaoka (now ED of CalNonprofits) back in 1993. Are there enough women in the technology field? Of course not. But, we do the whole issue short shrift by focusing only on those in the corporate sector, and not paying attention to those working across the entire community technology spectrum
Second, women in positions of leadership in the technology sector – whether it be corporate, nonprofit or governmental – need to exercise their influence in keeping this issue at the forefront. In the debate about Marissa Mayer, I keep hoping that Ms. Mayer herself will make a statement along the lines of, “Yeah, so I’m a young first-time mother, first-time CEO. So what? Get over it. I may seem like an anomaly now, but I’m the wave of the future. Get used to it.”
And, there are signs that corporate entities are indeed heeding this wave of the future. Verizon Wireless last month held its first-ever “Women in Verizon” conference, pulling its senior executive women from around the country to attend a two day session in which these execs strategized about the role of women in technology and heard from pioneers in the field, like former Google and current Facebook C-suiter, Sherly Sandberg.
So, a fond farewell to Helen Gurley Brown, best wishes for great success to Marissa Mayer, and an exhortation to the entire technology community to continue to embrace the contributions made by ALL women working in this field – past, present and future.
(Pictured Top: Marissa Mayer, Pictured Middle: Helen Gurley Brown, Source: Wikipedia)