Debate over new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reveals divide between women in media and tech

When Yahoo named Marissa Mayer its new president and CEO last week, she became one of the most powerful women in media and technology overnight. The media side had a question for her: Is she a feminist?

Journalists swiftly exhumed videotape of Mayer addressing the term. “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist,” Mayer told an interviewer during her time as a Google exec. “I don’t have the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.”

Cue the commentary. Marissa Mayer is a feminist. Maybe just a trickle-down feminist. Or else a nightmare. Or a disappointment. Or a mommy warrior. Does it even matter? Leave Marissa Mayer alone! No, leave feminism alone! Let’s all stop talking about it (starting now)! I did my part — I pitched a piece to Poynter about feminist identification among top female journalists. Then, I started talking to women in the tech world, and began to understand the limits of my perspective.

“I’m not surprised at all that Marissa Mayer doesn’t ID as feminist,” says Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist and founder of Tech Ladymafia, a collective for women in technology. “What constantly surprises me is when a woman breaks through the glass ceiling in her field and feminists automatically assume she’s one of them.” Even if that woman “is known for being a connector of women and a great mentor to women in tech,” as Mayer is.

The divide speaks to a cultural clash between the fields of technology and journalism — now stumbling toward coexistence as multinational conglomerates acquire assets in both sectors. Take Yahoo: It started as a Web directory, grew into a search engine, then a media platform, and is now snapping up top-level editorial talent to beef up its original news offerings. These journalists will not just gather news and pen commentary, but also come to define Yahoo as a brand. Meanwhile, tech prodigies like Mayer are now expected to be public faces, too. It would help if they could all get on the same page, especially on something as important as changing the ratio in the male-dominated fields of technology and media.

Women in these sectors know that our fields are extraordinarily male-dominated. But how we deal with that often depends on which side of the conglomerate’s ladder we’re climbing. Every journalist I spoke to for this piece — a magazine editor, an alt-weekly publisher, a national politics reporter, The New York Times’ incoming public editor — readily identified as a feminist. Women on the tech side are more likely to voice support for feminist actions — like mentoring women and supporting progressive work-life balance policies — than taking up the mantle.

“Your deliverables are different,” Sow told me in a phone and email interview. (For the record, she identifies as “a feminist — an old-school, bell hooks style feminist”). A reporter’s role is to start conversations, define problems, provoke. A tech exec’s is to manage a company, build a team, set internal policies. We talk, they strategize.

Consider these two approaches to combatting sexism in the workplace. First, from the tech side: Katherine Losse’s memoir on her stint as a “woman in the Facebook frat house” aired an interesting nugget from COO Sheryl Sandberg’s anti-sexist playbook. When Losse informed Sandberg of a senior manager who “had been known to proposition women in the company for threesomes,” Sandberg arranged to have him quietly demoted. Losse never even heard about it. “I’m so good that I make things happen, and no one even knows about it,” Sandberg told Losse later.

Now, for the journalistic approach: Her first week at her first journalism gig, Ann Friedman decided to hit “send” on “a company-wide email about our dismal byline gender ratio.” An older, female staff writer told Friedman to “cool it with the ‘feminist stuff.’” But “I’m happy to report that I don’t feel my career has suffered because I chose to ignore her advice,” Friedman told me. She went on to edit GOOD Magazine, where she achieved gender parity in the publication’s bylines.

GOOD — where I worked under Friedman — is another of those outlets straddling media platform and tech startup culture. After I left my job there, I started hearing details about the company’s newly-appointed COO, Laura Goldberg, a Harvard MBA who had previously served as general manager of NFL Online and COO of Napster — mainly, that she was a top-of-her-game badass. I emailed her asking if she was also a feminist. She called me up. “I do not identify with that term, and your email got me thinking about why,” she told me.

Goldberg recognizes that she came up through the “extraordinarily male dominated cultures” of technology and finance, but she’s always perceived the feminist movement “as something very aggressive and revolutionary.” Female journalists might have “that female professor” or “a few people at the organization who were mentors, or at least women who had made it” — a community to pin a movement on. Women like Goldberg were on their own, just “trying to get to where everyone else was fighting to get to.” It didn’t feel like a revolution so much as it did an individual grind.

But it’s not just a numbers game, and seeing more women like Mayer in top tech spots certainly won’t inspire a rush of feminist identification in the field. “It’s the tools you have,” Goldberg told me. Journalists “can get an article published that’s read by a lot of women,” she told me. “For a senior manager, or a COO, or a general manager, your platform is what you do every day. All I can do is get ahead by myself, and then create an environment that will help foster the women there. It’s super important, but it doesn’t feel like something huge.”

So when Marissa Mayer is asked about fortifying the numbers of women in tech, she emphasizes the “amazing opportunities all over the world for women.” She says she’s “less worried about adjusting the percentage than about growing the overall pie.” She fears that “just asking the question can handicap progress.” Growing up as something of a computer prodigy, she was “always very gender-blind” — and she credits her selective vision as an asset in climbing the ranks among men. And yet, at Google, she was known as an excellent mentor who cultivated a flexible “finding your rhythm” corporate culture that supports healthy work-life balance, particularly for new parents. As Amanda Marcotte noted at Slate, “Mayer disavowed the word even while upholding every single value of feminism.”

Meanwhile, journalists are sometimes afflicted by the opposite problem. Fox News commentator Sarah Palin identifies as a conservative feminist, a movement she has described as “the mama grizzlies, they rise up.” In 1973, Arianna Huffington wrote the feminist movement was out “not to emancipate women, but to destroy society.” Now one of the most powerful women in media, Huffington is free to chart her own, declawed version of the feminist lifestyle: “The next feminist issue is sleep,” she announced in a blog post on her site in 2010. (Through a publicist, Huffington declined to comment on this piece, citing scheduling conflicts).

Clearly, calling yourself a feminist and acting like one are not always the same. Building a shared community — and language — between the women of tech and journalism, Sow says, will happen “through personal relationships,” and with the help of women who cross over — Change the Ratio’s Rachel Sklar; the outspoken women of the Tech Ladymafia; Sandberg, who has become a media darling with her TED talks on women; and tech entrepreneur and public speaker Cindy Gallop.

But it will also require journalists — who are often biased by the particular feedback loop of our industry — to expand our vocabulary. “It’s more feminism’s problem that Marissa Mayer thinks that feminism is wrong than it is her problem,” Sow says. She’s a digital strategist, so she’s got her own solution for the problem: “I think grassroots feminism needs a rebrand.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://profiles.google.com/annajcook Anna Cook

    I’m okay with people deciding for themselves whether to identify as a feminist or not (it’s akin to understanding that there are safe and unsafe circumstances under which to come out as non-straight, and only the person whose life it is has a right to decide when, where, and how — even if). However, to me that’s a separate issue from the fact that Mayer fell back on a lot of mainstream stereotypes about feminism in order to explain her decision not to identify as feminist. That speaks to me of laziness in doing your homework before you make the decision that feminism is something you want to distance yourself from. And regardless of the decisions you make for yourself, you aren’t helping anyone by repeating those stereotypes. It’s akin to saying something like, “I’m not bisexual because bisexuals are incapable of monogamy.” No one should be forcing you to be bisexual — but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to repeat negative stereotypes about bisexual people while you’re explaining how you don’t identify.