The Mayer Effect

I recently read this article about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and I found it an unfortunate reminder that even women who make it to the “top” (depending on your own definition) are still plagued by issues of sexism and constant critique in ways that different from their male CEO counterparts.

Her feminine style and appreciation for fashion causes critics to describe her as a “princess” and her desire to seek perfection in every detail labels her as “robotic.” Yet, if she were to show up in pants and a sweatshirt she would be lambasted as unfeminine, childish or not ready for the role meanwhile the aforementioned attire is the daily uniform of Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) and he is praised for his causal and authentic look.

An insistence on perfection is typically praised in the great minds of our day (the article references Steve Jobs as an example) but yet this very same quality looks different on Mayer. While I admire Mayer tremendously I don’t envy her uphill battle of trying to stick to the recipe that has made men successful all over the world meanwhile knowing that this formula doesn’t appear to work well for women.

Her confidence, belief in her decision-making process and insistence that the right people be at the table (and if they aren’t she will make structural changes—i.e. fire them) are emblematic of successful business people, however these qualities in Mayer irritate the very people who were calling for change in the sinking ship that was Yahoo.

What does this mean for how leadership is viewed in higher education? Plenty.

1) It is better to be respected than liked: There is often a strong emphasis placed on “likeability” in our field. Yes, it is important that people be willing to collaborate and work with you. My measuring stick of hiring new people is “Do they have the skills to do the job and do I want to take them to lunch?” If so, my gut says “hire them”—everything else is trainable. However, I believe it is important to be respected more than liked. Let the work ethic, innovation, production and newly-created initiatives be a stronger indicator of workplace success.

Mayer is successful at Yahoo because she understands this. Her largely unpopular decisions (like cutting the program that allowed many employees to work remotely) is having huge gains for her with the companies’ top talent. As the article states: “If [Mayer] hadn’t come in, all the smart people would have left.”

How often do we not hold folks accountable simply because they are “nice?” How often do we minimize the success of others because we don’t like their disposition or because they aren’t seen as part of the “in” crowd at work?

2) Consider if the critical feedback you hearing about people is really about their skills or more about who they are—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.: Leadership looks different on Mayer because of her gender, and it looks different on President Obama because of his race. Both are critiqued in different ways because they represent different visual (as well as socialized and cultural) ideas about what leadership in their role should look like.

What does that mean for a woman who works with campus facilities or is a Vice President for Finance? Or a person of color who is a university President?

Our preconcieved notions of what a person in that type of role should look like, act, do, etc. contibutes to the backlash that trailblazers (like Mayer) often receive.

3) Consider if the problem is really a personal one or a structural one:

To advance as an administrator, the path is often described in 3 ways:
To move up, move out (change jobs, move around, etc.)
Obtain another advanced degree
Work more hours, volunteer for extra projects

What does this model mean for women who choose to have a family? How does this recipe for career success fit into the other areas of their life? For some women it simply doesn’t which is why we have a mass of women at mid-level who are unable or unwilling to move up because of the choices they may have to make that impact their personal obligations. Women’s career paths are not linear- they are circular-but fitting that circle in the box of higher education is a challenge for any women who seeks a senior leadership position.

When a woman like Mayer breaks through those barriers it looks and feels odd to people and she has been attacked in ways that a male peer with her same talents, skills and abilities would not.

The lesson we can learn from Marissa Mayer’s story is that it isn’t simply good enough to have females in executive-level positions. Structural and environmental shifts must occur by people who are truly invested in seeing a variety of diverse leaders in our organizations. Without this change, women may continue to opt out of seeking these opportunities or if they do actually obtain the corner office someday their tenure in these roles may be short.

I’m pulling for you Marissa, and women everywhere who seek to not be defined by their gender expectations but rather by their ability to get the job done in their own unique way.

What do you think about how women’s leadership styles are perceived in higher education??

Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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