Howard Kurtz Doesn’t Understand Sexism — Or The Marissa Mayer Phenomenon
1:45 pm, July 17th | by Amy Tennery
Yesterday, Yahoo announced that Marissa Mayer, a high-powered Google executive, would become its new CEO. This was historic on a number of levels: For starters, she joined a group of just 18 other women who are currently CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. And, at age 37, she became the one of just a few Fortune 500 CEOs appointed before their 40th birthdays. If that weren’t enough, word emerged today that she’s the first-ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
But in a Daily Beast column today, Howard Kurtz doesn’t seem to get what the big deal is.
He notes that there’s “a whiff of sexism in the coverage” of her hiring, and argues that she’s getting more attention because she’s a woman, “37 and attractive.” Of course, he’s not wrong about the sexism in coverage (in fact, he could look to his own column’s headline, “Marissa Mayer, Media Darling” to find a sterling example of it). But his whole story argues that she’s getting attention primarily because she’s a groundbreaking woman — and that that’s not, somehow, warranted. And he’s terribly wrong.
“If Yahoo’s interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn, had gotten the nod, does anyone think he’d be receiving a fraction of the media attention?” Kurtz asks. Of course not. He wouldn’t. Because “Yet Another Dude Named CEO Of A Big Company” is not a headline that inspires a ton of lively chatter — especially when that person was already the interim CEO and a perceived shoo-in. We’re all freaking out about Marissa Mayer for the same reason we all shat ourselves when Facebook finally appointed Sheryl Sandberg to its board and IBM finally named Virginia Rometty its CEO — these are historic moments for women in business, particularly in tech.
It’s not sexist to point out that a talented woman broke into the upper echelons of the Silicon Valley boys’ club — it’s sexist to think that isn’t exciting or worth talking about.
“Right now, the wow-she’s-a-lady tone is working to her advantage,” Kurtz adds, as though being a woman in the tech industry is some big advantage. Yes, there Mayer is, using her feminine wiles and cashing in on all the inherent advantages offered to women (clearly, there are so many) and boy, is that working for her.
“But every Yahoo story will now become a Marissa Mayer story,” Kurtz argues. And sure, he may be right — but isn’t every Facebook story a Mark Zuckerberg story? This comes with the territory of being a famous tech exec.
I don’t mean to pick on Kurtz — and it’s clear his intensions are good. He acknowledges that she’s “a female trailblazer.” At one point he warns that we’re “putting her on a pedestal” and setting her up for failure. And that’s a risk that all famous business leaders face. But his argument — that we should shut up about her already because her bubble might burst — is wrongheaded. Not celebrating women because they might happen to fail? That’s the kind of patronizing faux-concern we don’t need.
Yes, Mayer’s appointment is a big deal for women. In a business environment in which pregnancy can (and often unfairly is) seen as a liability, Mayer’s status as the first-ever pregnant Fortune 500 CEO is a landmark for women caught in the never-ending debate over whether we can “have it all.” (She’s reportedly due in October and planning to take a few weeks of maternity leave, a decisionTechCrunch called “trailblazing.”)
But her appointment also newsworthy beyond that.
After an endless string of lackluster CEOs, Yahoo is struggling to get out of the slump. (And the less said about its ugly, transparent split with past CEO Carol Bartz, the better.) Yahoo is a company desperately in need of an injection of Silicon Valley celebrity cool. And hiring Mayer, a famous, imminently competent, actual engineer (credited with creating Google’s famed, sleek look, no less) is tremendously smart — and, yes, newsworthy.
Maybe she’ll do great — and maybe she’ll fail (after all, she does have a steep climb ahead of her). But let’s give it a full 24 hours after her announcement before we start crying Marissa Mayer Fatigue.