Why Marissa Mayer Should Embrace Feminism — Your Ideas Wanted

by cv harquail on July 17, 2012


Just when we’re celebrating that another woman has become CEO of a major corporation– and a tech one at that — we discover that she doesn’t think of herself as a feminist.

That means, something’s wrong.

Let’s see what we can do to help Marissa Mayer understand what feminism is, why she might want to be one, and what she can do differently and better when she sees herself as a feminist.

Here’s a plan for helping Ms. Mayer understand and embrace feminism —

  • Check out this draft of an open letter to Ms. Mayer.
  • Consider your own advice about feminism and business
  • Add your advice to the comments section.
  • Also, add any comments about revising the letter itself.

On Weds. I’ll recraft this post to include everyone’s recommendations. Then, we’ll post it for Ms. Mayer and for anyone else who might want to learn about feminism in business.  ~~~

Dear Ms. Mayer-

Congratulations on your big news! Both of your announcements this week – that you’re taking the helm of a struggling tech company, and that you’re preparing for the birth of your first child – make us feminists in business really, really happy. We’re happy for you, for your family, for Yahoo, for women in tech, and for women in general.

You’re continuing to pursue an ambitious path, and we really want you to succeed.

There’s one issue, though, where your track record gives us pause, and that’s around your stated lack of connection to feminism. If you can’t see yourself as a feminist, and if you can’t see yourself as a role model for women specifically as well as for anyone with business & family ambitions, that’s a problem. We want to help you solve it.

We feminists, the women and men contributing to this post, have some ideas for you.

We’d like to help you re-shape how you think about feminism, and we’d like to offer you advice from what we have learned as we’ve worked to combine professional ambition with our family & life goals.

We believe that it’s only when you have a feminist understanding of the challenges around you that you can stay sane, stay focused and make a difference.

Your distance from feminism may have many sources.

We want to address the right ones, so we need some help diagnosing your concerns.

We’re not sure from your public comments what the actual issue is. Is it that:

    • You may not want to be a feminist (You don’t believe that women and men should have equal opportunity.)
    • You may not want to call yourself a feminist (You don’t like to label yourself.)
    • You may not understand what it means to be a feminist (You have an outdated or superficial understanding of feminism.)
    • You may not know how to be a feminist in public (It’s not that hard, but it starts with understanding the power of feminism).

We also want to offer you some real actions steps.

In a nutshell, here’s our advice for you. Underneath these bullet points, we offer more texture and some resources for you.

  1. Understand modern day feminism
  2. Recognize how feminism has helped you get where you are
  3. Consider how your views about yourself, about business, and about your CEO role map onto feminist goals
  4. Recognize how, as a woman in a public & powerful role, you can help change the system
  5. Recognize that other feminists are out here ready to support you and encourage you.


Okay feminists, start your engines. Add your feminist advice for Marissa Mayer to the comments, below.

(Please be sure to add your email so that I can follow up if we need more info about your ideas. Also, tag your advice to an action step or a diagnosis, to make it easier to combine with others.)


Jon Husband July 17, 2012 at 11:46 am

I’m far from an expert (obviously), but I had a strong-minded mother who had a major impact on me and my beliefs, values and behaviour, and I think she was pretty strongly oriented towards feminist principles (this in the 60’s & 70’s). So, I tend to think I’m somewhat aware, for a man, of some of the central aspects and issues.

It seems to me that feminism in the second decade of the 21st Century has (in the perceptions of the mainstream of our society) has been significantly distorted & sidelined, mainly by the ongoing cultural shifts towards commercialism, aggressiveness and money and power as primary motivations (in North America, even when has little or no money or power, this is what ‘we’ all see placed in front of us each and every day). Mayer may not have much of an historical perspective nor been overly interested in the deeper issues as her career has evolved. After all, it must have been many many long-houred weeks, lots of smarts and an adaptable personality that got her to such senior levels in a heavily-male-dominated industry. Paying any significant attention to core feminist issues and principles would, I think, have been something of a real distraction for her ?

All that said, given our ubiquitous connectedness and the continuing growth in awareness of sharing, collaboration, cooperation and emergent peer-to-peer economics, etc. and Yahoo’s deep interest in becoming more relevant to the ‘new’ and continuously-evolving context .. I think it would be useful for Mayer to take a decently-deep dive into the foundations and principles of feminism. After all, many of the exhortations from ‘experts’ about listening, empathy, connecting and so on in the new social arena that Yahoo wants to play in more often are not very detached from some of the basics (as I understand them).

N.B. .. I’m a man and no doubt lack some of the sensibilities and perception that might, for all I know, make what I have expressed above sound either condescending, ill-informed or just plain irrelevant to the issues CV has posed. If so, please accept my sincere apology. I have been interested in the issue(s) for many years and will continue to be. And I’m always up for learning more and better.

cv harquail July 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Jon, I’ve heard from a few other people that same interpretation, that Mayer may have avoided (or not sought) a feminist perspective b/c it’s sometimes easier and more effective to plow through the sexism than to fight it directly.

Also, we know that one effect of sexism is that it presses women to ignore/repudiate the very suggestion that their gender has influenced their career success (either positively or negatively).

Another colleague of ours told me that for him/her, the concept of feminism doesn’t have much resonance. This colleague also suggested that feminism didn’t resonate b/c s/he thought that men more than women needed liberation these days. I took that as an mis-understanding of feminism, which is not about liberating women but about removing gendered, racist, classist, etc barriers for *everyone*.

Jon Husband July 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I took that as an mis-understanding of feminism, which is not about liberating women but about removing gendered, racist, classist, etc barriers for *everyone*.

I also would have taken it that way.

cv harquail July 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm

From an anonymous commenter:
Use your influence to shape Yahoo as a Work Life Friendly firm.
Follow the lead of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. As Lisa Belkin reports

“Gillibrand took deliberate steps to create a workplace culture that would be reflective of her values. She started by overhauling the office manual, making changes like allowing her staff three months paid leave and giving them more flexibility to perform their work remotely by computer or BlackBerry.”

Work Life Flexibility is good for ALL employees, whether they have children or not. And work life flexibility is good for the bottom line.
Plus, when employees’ are able to step away from a 24/7 on demand expectation, they have time to rest, reflect and recharge. They are actually *more productive when they don’t work extreme hours.

Rachel Happe July 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm

CV –
I’ll out myself as the person for whom feminism does not quite resonate because I think it’s a larger social issue of how we raise children, live balanced lives, value each other, employ our uniquely human attributes to solve problems, etc. And despite a re-framing of feminism to include a more holistic agenda – it’s root is still ‘fem’ and the word still, for me, is still attached to the first wave of feminism and to establishing women as equal.
By your definition I am probably a feminist but I wouldn’t really describe myself that way and I’m not convince of why I should. Do I want equitable access? Absolutely! Do I want organizations to incorporate more human values like empathy and connection. Yes! But I think the word ‘feminist’ allows people to partition off the conversation to a sub-network of people who care about ‘feminism’ when I think it’s a conversation everyone should be having.
So maybe it comes down to a linguistic challenge that I struggle with but I don’t believe organizations are going to do something (yet) because it is the right thing to do for feminism but I do think they are coming around to providing better solutions for their employees.

Not sure that makes any sense and I think we would probably agree on most of the issues and many of the solutions… that word just does not resonate.

My advice for Marissa Mayer is the following:
– Explore how to restructure Yahoo! in ways that enable more flexibility and adaptability
– Double down on what Yahoo! has done well which is the user/human experience
– Allow yourself some time off with your newborn. I know, I know… do it anyway.


cv harquail July 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Yes, yes and yes to your suggestions Rachel! There’s an emerging theme that making sure Yahoo is a sane place, a humane place, to work would be an important accomplishment– one that everyone would appreciate AND one that fits a modern definition of what feminist leadership is.

I hear your point about the word feminism. … and I resent how effective anti-feminists have been in promoting a definition of feminism that is incorrect.

BTW, humanism is not a better term for what you are hoping for (e.g., a non-sexist, not racist, humane work environment). Humanism is by definition an anti-religion position, first and formost. Using ‘humanist’ instead of ‘feminist’ doesn’t get you what you want, just as people calling digitized marketing organizationals “social organizations” doesn’t really grok what we believe. (grin).

It is still important to me and to self-identified feminists to embrace the term, and to note that feminism is not *just* anti-sexism, that anti-sexism is not *just* more for women/forget about men. As long as people continue to use sex differences as a way to justify differences in status, power, and value, feminism needs to be ‘feminism’. Of course, you could use the newer alternative word – anti-kyrarchy – but no one outside the feminist community can either spell it or pronounce it, much less recognize it.

All this to say, what matters most is that Mayer find a way to make Yahoo work better for all the stakeholders.

Jen van der Meer July 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Social conversation and the way it evolves publicly has changed the way I think about feminist action, and what I’d recommend to someone who took on the hard labor that will be turning around Yahoo!.

Before, we (feminists) would meet in private and connect and convene, or in public demanding social change on specific issues. Old school, NGO-style. Now, it’s easy to connect with fellow feminists online and publicly support causes at all points in the spectrum, from activists to integrationists, NGOs to start-ups.

And in opening up this conversation – we see more men. Asking for the SAME outcomes. But not under the banner of feminism, but under the banner of anti-busyness, a sensible workweek, and life hacker tips for how to take tech sabbaths.

Marissa Mayer is publicly someone who has spoken about the early work-around-the-clock days at Google. She comes from a company that has built interesting flex and employee-friendly policies. Adopting the feminist moniker is not the end game.

Instead – see the turn-around as an opportunity to adopting purpose-driven and authentic leadership skills, host a public and creative dialog about work life balance/optimization that achieves real outcomes. The outcome of Yahoo! being a company whose products I wouldn’t be embarrassed to use, and a stock that I’d like to own, and a place where humans like to work.

Jon Husband July 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm

@Jen .. well said, in my opinion.

cv harquail July 17, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Jen, thanks so much for your comments.

I do appreciate that men, and women, are calling for and creating organizations that are life-friendly, fair, democratic, flexible, sane, humane, sustainable, effective, purpose driven, and more. It’s a big missed opportunity for feminists, since all of these initiatives are addressed in the (unfortunately very small) conversation about “feminist leadership”. Maybe I should have focused on “feminist leadership” instead of ‘feminist’ per se.

I agree that, in the end, I care less about Mayer embracing the term ‘feminist’ than I do about what Mayer does within and with Yahoo!. I think her success would be all the more powerful and more inspiring if she could / would link it to a larger political perspective on what all of this is for, but if she gets good results by (re)creating a good organization, that would be wonderful.


Michelle July 20, 2012 at 4:34 am

I’m a woman passionate about women’s issues and I don’t like the label feminist. I appreciate educated, motivated, influential women like Mayer who make a similar choice to eschew the label.

Anonymous July 20, 2012 at 11:20 am

Feminism means never having to say you’re sorry that you’re not a feminist.

Seriously, feminism is believing men and women are equal human beings. Melissa obviously believes that. Enough said.

Nanette Fondas July 20, 2012 at 11:21 am

CV – that was me in the previous comment “Feminism means ….”

Jamie Notter July 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Okay, so in the video she says she specifically doesn’t like to be associated with the “militant” quality of feminists or the people who have a “chip on their shoulder.” This strikes me as a common response when it comes to any “ism.” Many people react negatively to the people who show up to the party with anger and condemnation. It gets kind of personal, I think. If we come to that party and we DO NOT have that anger ourselves, then it feels dangerous to us. We feel like perhaps these other people are angry at US. That WE did something wrong. And no one wants to be made “wrong” in conversations about racism or sexism. That’s when you hear all the defensive statements from folks about how they are NOT racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

But this is one of the crucial challenges for me. So many people still define these “isms” in terms of personal attitudes. As if you have the choice to be sexist or not sexist based on your attitude towards women. Feminism then becomes how angry you are at people who have these bad attitudes. I just don’t see it that way, so I have a hard time having conversations with people about it.

I see sexism as a system. It is a system that holds back one group (women) and gives privileges to another group (men) for no good reason. Sure, there are lots of negative attitudes thrown into that, both historically and today, but that is not the defining characteristic. Feminism is the movement to change and dismantle that system of privilege/oppression. I am quite proudly a feminist in that respect. The feminist movement’s made great strides over the years. Even in changing attitudes quite broadly. But when we’re still faced (today!) with data like women making 70 cents on the dollar for the same job, then it strikes me that this sexist system is still in place, despite all the truly amazing opportunities that are out there for women.

So we have more work to do. Marissa, I hope you’ll help us. I can’t really sit here and tell you that you need to identify as a feminist. I’m a conflict resolution guy. It’s not in our nature to tell people what to do. :-) But I really do hope you see the systemic nature of this. I hope you’ll be more patient and tolerant of those who have chips on their shoulder. They are just dealing with this system in a different way than you. But chip or no chip, please help us change this system, because the world really needs it. Your kid will thank you.

cv harquail July 26, 2012 at 11:02 am

Hi Jamie-
Your comment made me think more about why Mayer’s characterization of feminism bothers me (and others).

It’s fair to say that some feminists are angry, and do have a ‘chip on their shoulders’. But what’s unfair is to dismiss this anger as whiny, overly emotional, or somehow inappropriate.

It really makes a lot of sense to me that feminists would be angry, for example, at women making $.70 to the dollar. Or not getting the plum assignment, or having their parenthood status or fashion choices interrogated when they are named to a prominent position, all because of a system of unearned privilege.

I really appreciate, too, your effort to encourage MM to look at and work on that very system, whether or not she uses feminism to deepen her understanding of the system and organize her approaches to changing it.

The biggest issue is that we/you/I want MM to use her power and position to make a difference and to change the system. I wonder how she can do this ‘for real’ if she lacks a feminist perspective, and I wonder if she’ll really care to, as long as she sees herself and her experience as something separate from other women’s and relatively unaided by feminists/feminism.

On the plus side, her appointment and her ongoing visibility will keep giving us news hooks to talk about the issues, and move us forward.

Karen Heidrick vanWisse July 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Maybe this is more about the issue of anger – whether we can allow ourselves to be angry or identify ourselves with those who are. I too have an association of anger with feminism and am less inclined to embrace it because if this. On the one hand I too believe in peace and conflict resolution and I don’t think anger gets us there- however I am also aware of the command to “be a good girl” and wonder how much of my shying away from anger is based on deeply held values and how much of it is because I don’t want to ” get in trouble” with the powers that be.

Mo August 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm

There is also the question of whether we as feminist allies *should* be calling out a woman who – self-identified feminist or not – has helped to advance the feminist cause by just setting an example for success for a woman in her field. Sure we want her to, sure we are dissapointed when she doesn’t choose to self-identify, even are boggled when she clearly fits into what we define as feminist. But self -identifying as a feminist will undoubtably make her already tough job even tougher. Just by being that success in this field, she already faces sufficient criticism and obstacle to acheiving and maintaining that success in the first place. Should we be applying further pressure to her to take on the mantle of a cause? Is that being a responsible ally?

I don’t know if I have the answer, but it’s something to seriously consider.

virginia Yonkers August 29, 2012 at 10:39 am

I am torn because in 1984, as a graduate student in business, I became a member (and left soon after) NOW. I felt those in the group were the type of “feminists” that gave women a bad name because they spent much of the meeting times bashing “white males” stereotyping men as women and other groups were stereotyped. I think this is they type of feminist that MM is referring to.

On the other hand, she now has the power to create a new type of organization that others above have described so eloquently and even demonstrate the choices a woman has that my mother and grandmother did not have.

Still on the other hand, I don’t see us encouraging a new CEO of a major corporation who is a white male from a privileged background (or even a self made white male who may have pulled himself out of poverty) to incorporate feminist management style. So why should we expect it of MM just because she is a woman? Shouldn’t this letter go out to all CEO’s (and business researchers/theorists who can support the effectiveness of a change in attitude towards flextime and family friendly workplaces with numbers) to try to get them to reassess the impersonal corporate “machine” style of management?

I do consider myself a feminist in that I think women can do just as good a job as men and deserve choices, and men can be just as effective nurturers at home as women. I also feel that there is not “a feminist” approach or belief, and that what is important is that women and men have equal choices in life. Perhaps a better label would be an anti-sexist.

Donna Krause January 30, 2013 at 3:43 pm

As a former NOW (National Organization for Woman) Officer and MBA Summa cum Laude Honors Graduate, I can understand why Mayer’s doesn’t see herself as a feminist. Usually it is women who have encountered barriers to equality, opportunity, fairness and justice in their personal or professional life that become aware of discrimination because of gender. Obviously, Mayer has had easy going and all of the doors to equality and opportunity opened to her in her lifetime and hasn’t run up against gender discrimination. Therefore, why should she be a feminist? She hasn’t experienced sexism at all. At the pressure applied by the women’s movement and followed through by government, education and business, many previous barriers to women and young girls have been entirely eliminated. As a result, Mayer’s hasn’t had any experience with gender inequality, especially in a modern, futurist career area such as IT. Having been in the forefront of Affirmative Action in the mid to late 1970’s where I was the only female corporate accounts representative hired in a staff of about 30 male corporate account executives for a Fortune 500 Company, the hiring supervisor played into my ego telling me how “Special”, how “Talented” I was and how I “had so much to give”. After continuous superior sales performance and recognition, I built up a “success attitude” of professionalism and related well to the ideas of the standard male business culture’s idea of success. The result was putting me above other women and leading me to believe that I was “superior” and “other women were beneath me”. Basically this is the “Queen Bee” theory where one powerful successful women doesn’t fully accept her female identity and doesn’t see herself as a part of the group labeled females because she relates psychologically to the male identity of money power, respect, prestige. Because being a woman in our society has so many negative connotations compared to male identity and is a professional put down to the “Queen Bee” professional woman, she doesn’t want to be grouped with women who aren’t professionals and “haven’t made it yet to the top”. It is a type of snobbery…powerful successful professionals only want to associate with other professionally powerful successful people whether it be in the arts, education, entertainment or business. For Mayer to state that she’s a feminist, means that she has to admit to inequality towards the female sex and thereby recognizing that it exists. To admit that there is inequality and sexism means that she has had some experience of it, however, as a “Queen Bee” she hasn’t experienced it, therefore, discrimination and sexism for her, doesn’t exist.

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