Pando

What we all missed when Marissa Mayer became Yahoo CEO

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 12, 2017

From The Yahoos Desk

And so the sad slow moving car crash that was Yahoo is almost at an end.

The deal with Verizon is still in process, the remaining assets will be renamed the much-mocked “Altaba,” and in a shock/not-shock announced this week, Marissa Mayer will step down from the board.

Say what you will about Mayer, at least she got us to a resolution... finally.

When that news broke earlier this week, it was another excuse for the Internet and anonymous traders on social media everywhere to explode in a chorus of how mightily one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley failed.

The sad end to this mini-story of Mayer within the larger Homerian Yahoo search for a CEO who could tame its slowing growth and leviathan dysfunction, matters in two dimensions. There’s what this means for those of us invested in the symbol of Mayer and for Mayer herself.

Mayer was an important symbol in the Valley. She seized press attention early on as someone who broke the mold, and not just because she was a woman. She was an engineer. She was early at Google, one of the most powerful companies in Valley history. She was also beautiful, fashionable, a former cheerleader, blond with blue eyes, and a mother. She -- like Sheryl Sandberg-- was OK being written about in these terms, being styled for Vogue photoshoots, appearing on red carpets, being depicted as glamorous and feminine.

Partially because Mayer became such a media darling, Google emerged as a hotbed of female tech talent. Three of the most powerful women in tech-- Mayer, Sandberg, Susan Wojcicki-- all came from Google. Megan Smith, the CTO of the United States, came from Google too.

And their public stances and examples on motherhood, on women’s rights, on female leadership, on the strengths of women supporting other women has trickled out into Silicon Valley widely. A rung beneath these women are other strong female Google alums. They are major up and comers and number two executives of some of the Valley’s most highly valued companies, like Radical Candor’s Kim Malone Scott, Color Lab’s Katie Stanton, Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Square’s Francoise Casals Brougher, TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown Philpot, and so many others.

Why so many women find their management chops at Google has come up repeatedly on my podcast about badass working moms, as so many Google alums have been on it. I recently asked Stanton what it was about Google that empowered so many women. She said it certainly wasn’t a master plan by its male co-founders, as much as it was the power and influence of early women who worked there like Mayer, despite other arm-chair pundits not finding her “feminist enough” to root for.

Whether she coined a phrase like “Lean In” or not, Mayer also set a standard for the strength and resilience of working mothers: Her getting named to that job while pregnant with her first child is something only a woman as respected as Mayer could have achieved, and for all of her critics, I’ve seen almost none blame her distraction as a mother for her failings at Yahoo. In my view, it’s not a coincidence that Lynn Jurich holds her baby while ringing the NYSE bell after taking SunRun public just after Mayer redefined for the world what a new mother can work through in the glare of the public markets.

60% of women face so-called Maternal Wall bias when doing far less demanding and public jobs than hers. It is one of the most blatant forms of sexism, because a lot of men (and women) simply believe a mother can’t devote the same time and attention to a job as a man. They don’t see it as sexism when a woman is denied a promotion; they see it as helping her balance her time between work and home.

The firmness, resilience, and sheer hours Mayer worked while pregnant and just before and after delivery was so super-human, that it’s one-- maybe the only one?-- knock that simply couldn’t be made against her. That will pay dividends for future pregnant women, no matter Yahoo’s outcome.

So we did not need the symbol of Mayer-- what Mayer represented to tech, and to women, and to working moms-- meeting such an ignominious end.

Then there is Mayer the person. I don’t envy the assault she’s been under most days she’s done this job. There’s no doubt she was treated worse than a man would have been. In fact, data backs up that activist shareholders generally treat female CEOs worse.

When Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo back in 2012, I publicly wondered why she would put herself in that position. This was a company that had already made several very successful and very different leaders leave in disgrace. I wrote back then:

Yahoo has had its "grown up" Valley CEO.

It has had its studio mogul CEO.

It has had its returning visionary founder CEO.

It has had its hard-charging, execution-centric CEO.

It has had its misrepresenting, train-wreck, patent troll CEO.

And now, with the stunning appointment of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo tries to go yet another route: A CEO with bona-fide Web tech chops. Give the new board credit for one thing: At least it's not repeating mistakes of the past.

This announcement has sent the Valley into utter confusion and disbelief. It was a move that even Yahoo soothsayers AllThingsD couldn't anticipate, and certainly one that has made interim CEO and fellow candidate Ross Levinsohn very unhappy.

The stunning part isn't that Yahoo wanted Mayer. She has been one of the most hotly recruited Valley executives for years. It's that Mayer actually said yes.

Even Jason Kilar of Hulu reportedly said no and, no offense to Kilar, he's no Marissa Mayer....She's not just a dream candidate for Yahoo; she's a dream candidate for nearly anyone.?

What I didn’t realize then was the data on women who run Fortune 500 companies. First, there’s the Glass Cliff phenomenon, where women are offered CEO jobs at companies that are in crisis. Since comparable male candidates have more options, a weaker company can get a well-respected superstar like Mayer.

Data supports that Glass Cliff is a thing. Utah State University studied all of the Fortune 500 female CEOs and found that 42% of them were appointed while companies were in crisis. That compares to 22% of male appointments during the same time.

It gets worse: Only 13% of those women also have the title of Chairman of the Board, compared to 50% of men. That gives them less power and influence, and it also conveys that fact to the world, notes an excellent Fortune story on why women kept disappearing from its Most Powerful Woman list. PriceWaterhouse Coopers published another study showing that 38% of female CEOs were forced out of their jobs over a ten year period compared to just 27% of male CEOs. And a study from Arizona State’s Carey School of Business shows that female CEOs have a 27% odds of fighting with activist shareholders. Men have a less than 1% chance of it.   

A lot of this is -- no doubt-- the same gender bias that women face at every other level of the corporate ladder. But a lot of these women are set up for failure. They are offered worse jobs a top companies in crisis, given less power to turn them around, and a shorter time to show improvement.

From the Fortune piece:

When they are not able to turn their firm around, it’s a confirmation bias: They really don’t have what it takes. They couldn’t cut it. As former Intel president James puts it, “You’re a pioneer. You either get to the promised land or you die.” 

Worse: According to Fortune, of the 50-plus woman who managed to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, only two ever became a CEO of a Fortune 500 company again.

Sure, Jason Kilar may be no Marissa Mayer. But he was lucky enough to be a dude. Mayer broke so many patterns and barriers as a woman in tech, but she became a posterchild of the no-win reality of the Glass Cliff.

When I wrote my piece presuming she must have far more options thank Yahoo, I think the lore of Mayer was so great, that she seemed bigger than her gender. I wasn’t alone in this. Back at the time of her appointment, Marc Andreessen (a Pando investor) answered back my argument that she was setting herself up for failure, by arguing that she couldn’t lose. From that piece:

"If you had asked me a week ago [if Yahoo could turn things around] I would have said, 'No way. It's too late. It can't be done. The neglect has gone on too long,'" Andreessen says. "On the other hand, I would have also told you there's no way that Marissa would be available. She gets recruited all the time and has a pretty big job at Google. So the fact that she is available changes the scope of what might be possible."

Why so much enthusiasm? Other than founder Jerry Yang, there is almost no one on the planet as well suited to step in and immediately start making things better, Andreessen argues. In fact, you could argue she's even more qualified than Yang. She has distinguished herself in pretty much the exact same business, and watched Yahoo closely as a competitor. No one has to explain online advertising or mail to her, he says in a not-so-subtle dig at Carol Bartz. "At least she's not going to be surprised," Andreessen says.

Expectations are so high, in fact, that he argued that taking the job was a no-lose proposition for Mayer personally...If she pulls it off, she's a genius. If she fails, not even Marissa Mayer could save the company, he says.

That is certainly not how it’s played out. And that’s not entirely fair.

USA Today was one of a few publications to weigh her legacy in recent days:

On the one hand, under Mayer, 41, Yahoo stock soared 180% since she was named CEO in 2012, from $15 to $42.

"If my broker could do that for me every time, I'd call him a genius," says Michael McDermott, professor of business management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "Given a very difficult if not impossible situation, I'd say she did OK."

It’s hard to argue Mayer was a worse custodian of shareholder value than Jerry Yang who turned down the $40 billion Microsoft acquisition. (The Verizon deal on the table is for just $4.8 billion.) Sure, Yahoo would not have had the valuable Asian assets without Yang. But Mayer was the one who finally unlocked their value after multiple CEOs tried.

Will Mayer ever get another shot at running a Fortune500 company? If she’s like most women who came before her, it’s unlikely. Getting a chance to run even another distressed one would put her ahead of most women who’ve been in her situation.

But Mayer’s career in the Valley is another thing. Dozens of major tech leaders-- from Marc Benioff to Max Levchin-- have publicly applauded her efforts at Yahoo and defended her track record, work ethic, and resilience.

No one should worry about Mayer. She will have endless options in the venture capital, startup, and tech world, even as the biases that keep women out of the highest Fortune 500 jobs stubbornly remain.

The best hope to break that pattern may be Susan Wojcicki, now that Alphabet is a holding company, and she’s the CEO of YouTube. While a ten year old brand, YouTube is one of the hottest assets in tech both roiling the world of online music and the standard that Snapchat and Facebook are trying to best in the battle for online video.

While so many women have left Google in order to forge a path to a top CEO job, Wojcicki ironically may have achieved what Mayer couldn’t simply by staying put.