Let’s Hear It For the Ladies: What Marissa Mayer’s Move Means for Future of Female Execs

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  • This has been a landmark week for women in media — and it’s only Tuesday!

    Just yesterday, it was announced that top Google executive Marissa Mayer would be taking on the role of CEO at Yahoo! and The Buffalo News VP Margaret Sullivan would be the new (and first female) public editor at the New York Times.

    But the weekly news shouldn’t put a damper on this past year’s excitement for powerful women in the media and tech industries. Within the past 12 months we’ve seen Jill Abramson become the first female executive editor at the New York Times and Sheryl Sandberg take her seat as the first woman on Facebook’s Board of Directors.

    Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio and founding editor of Mediaite, offered her insights on the recent news and how the landscape is shaping up for women to sit in power.

    It’s been a big week (and year) for women in media and tech. With recent appointments of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Margaret Sullivan and Jill Abramson — how do these shifts align with the goals of Change the Ratio?

    Very well, indeed! They literally represent the ratio, changing. As more and more women rise in the tech world, we will see more and more of these appointments…and we’ll see more women looking to these role models and say, this looks awesome and I can totally do this. You’ve heard the adage, “You can’t be what you can’t see” – well, there’s a lot to see these days, and that trend is on the rise.

    You know, to look at that list now is to see familiar names whom we are used to holding big positions (Margaret Sullivan is not a nationally-known name the way the others are, though in journalism as the NYT’s newly-tapped Public Editor, she’s on her way). But it’s important to remember that they’ve only reached a certain quorum in recent years. Sandberg was the first woman named to the Facebook Board. Abramson is the first top editor at the New York Times, in 161 years. Sullivan takes a more modern post at the NYT, but she’s the fifth to hold the position and the first woman. There’s Ginny Rometty and Ursula Burns and Indra Nooyi – all names we know, all firsts.  As for Mayer, any bio will note that she was the first female engineer hired at Google. But – she’s not the first female CEO at Yahoo! The times, they are a-changin’…and so are the ratios.

    The NYT wrote that Melissa Mayer took the Yahoo! CEO offer as an opportunity to step out on her own and claim a bigger stage. Why is it important for us to see women in visible, powerful roles?

    So we can see women in visible, powerful roles! Visibility is a sign of taking credit, taking ownership, holding yourself out as an authority – all things that men are socialized to assume more easily than women. (Sorry, I don’t mean to be pushy, who am I to say that, forget I said anything?) That goes double for power. The more women who assume these roles visibly and with intention, the more we move forward. Eventually, Aaron Sorkin will have to get used to it.

    How does the news of Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy impact the earlier announcement of her move (if at all)?

    It certainly adds an additional challenge! One which both she, her husband and the Yahoo! board all knew about before we did. Presumably all parties are in it for the long haul, which makes it a fairly standard overlap in business (i.e. the having of both a C-level job and children). That it is happening at the outset just means she will have to be extremely organized and focused, but from all accounts those adjectives describe her well.

    I’m not minimizing the demands of being a new mother. (I’ve never experienced it but I hear that it can have something of an impact!) Mayer is in the fortunate position of being able to afford assistance with childcare (and again, this will probably accrue beneficially to Yahoo’s corporate childcare policies, which will in turn accrue to employee happiness and retention).

    Honestly, it’s actually one of the most exciting signals in this hire because it demonstrates a key extra level of commitment on the part of the Yahoo! board. That is a company that has been through a lot of turmoil. Just getting on the same page has been a major challenge. As Fred Wilson notes, they are there now. This is a signal that everyone is 100% on board and standing behind their CEO and the new direction. It all bodes extremely well for the future.

    What can these major companies gain by putting qualified women in their top tier positions?

    The same thing they gain by putting qualified men in their top-tier positions – any combination of brainpower, experience, networking mojo, people skills, creativity, perspective… and possibly better childcare.

    They also gain buzz – as evidenced by how Twitter exploded with this news – which is generally a good thing (earned media and all that). That will also surely come with nitpicking scrutiny, but then again a company like Yahoo! would, anyway (it’s how Scott Thompson got dethroned in the first place).

    In this specific case, Yahoo! is getting Mayer’s star power, pristine reputation, and her first crack at taking the reins herself. That’s a wildly exciting opportunity for all concerned. If they are smart and willing to take risks – both the new CEO and her famously-backseat driving new board – then who knows?

    With digital media as a relatively young and hip industry, why does this shift towards changing the ratio feel gradual?

    Everything takes time to grow up. But when it happens there’s no turning back.

    Can you think of any other high-ranking positions in journalism or media that you’d still like to see held by women?

    It’s more a general feeling of wanting to see a better male-female ratio across the landscape. I’d like to see more women on Charlie Rose and in the mix on Morning Joe; on panels at TechCrunch Disrupt (not mostly as judges) and speaking at Wired Conferences (not mostly as moderators); on more ‘Best Of’ lists in this or that or that or that; on more boards (Facebook is a good start, but it’s just that – a start). I’m excited for and about Marissa Mayer but she’s not the only woman out there. So she’s off the hook! And the rest of the industry is not.


    Rachel Sklar is a writer and social entrepreneur based in New York. She is the founder of Change The Ratio, which increases visibility and opportunity for women in tech & new media, and Charitini, which encourages group giving around events. A former lawyer who writes about media, politics, culture & technology, she was a founding editor at Mediaite and the Huffington Post. She has written for outlets like the New York Times, Newsweek, Mother Jones and The Daily Beast, and she speaks widely at conferences, on panels and on TV. She is also the co-host of “The Salon” on The Jewish Channel (check local listings!). Rachel is a TechStars mentor and an advisor to several startups, including HashableVox Media,SifteeLover.lyVotizenThe Daily Muse & Honestly Now. She was named to the Silicon Alley 100 in 20092010 and 2011, and has received numerous honorsand awards. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelsklar – and watch for her latest project, TheLi.st.  

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