Marissa Mayer is intelligent, well-spoken, well-dressed, and pregnant—a list of what could be the most common characteristics for the leader of a major tech company in 2012.The CEO of IBM is Ginni Rometty, Meg Whitman heads up Hewlett-Packard, and Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer for Facebook. Yet Mayer’s decision to have a child while having a career is making headlines.
Mayer was the first female engineer hired at Google. She worked there for 13 years after earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University then teaching computer science to its undergraduates. At Google she was initially responsible for its search business, including the spare, easy-to-use design of the main search page, and then promoted to vice president of the localization suite of products including Google Maps. She did artificial intelligence research at the UBS lab in Zurich and at SRI International. Her resume reads like that of most male chief executive officers. But where are the articles on their paternity leaves?It’s not her gynecological status that makes Mayer newsworthy. It’s not even her intelligence, her drive, or her desire for a career: plenty of women have those characteristics. Mayer is a role model for women who neither have nor want the limelight, thwarting stereotype threat.
In a presentation for the Campaign for the American Conversation, she discusses the moment she realized she was the only woman in her upper division computer science classes at Stanford, the moment she understood that “blond woman” was sufficient to pick her out of a class lineup. She says, “And I really, until that moment, had been very blind. Was I the only woman? Was I the only blond woman?” Her conclusion from this epiphany is startling: “But I think that that was actually healthy throughout. I think that had I felt more self-conscious about being the only woman along the way I think it would have actually stifled me a lot more.” Score one for pruning “female” from one’s self image to succeed in STEM.
Mayer is not the only role model whose career takes into consideration the saliency of her gender. Ginni Rometty—a Northwestern University electrical engineer and computer scientist who is currently the CEO of IBM—tells the story of her husband encouraging her to take a big job: she tells him she’s not ready yet, that she put off responding to the offer. He asks, “Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?” Rometty’s epiphany was that you are always your own worst critic but should never let that get in the way of taking a new experience that will allow you to grow. “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” she reminds us.
Sheryl Sandberg, mother of two young children and COO of Facebook, agrees with Rometty’s sentiment that women have to sacrifice differently than men for a career. In her TED talk on why we have too few women leaders, she offers three pieces of advice for those who want to succeed: sit at the table, make your partner a real partner, and don’t leave before you leave. By speaking confidently and eloquently on that stage, she hammered her point home, not just with words but by acting as a role model for female leadership.