NEW BOSS

07.17.12

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s New CEO, Is a Media Darling

Press swoons over one of few female CEOs in Silicon Valley.

This headline on the NBC News website caught my eye: “She’s the new CEO of Yahoo—and also expecting her first child.”

Marissa Mayer is a great story, right?

She is the rare woman to become a chief executive in the male-dominated, Mark Zuckerberg playground of the tech world. She is leaving a hot company (Google) to attempt to rescue a struggling company (Yahoo). And, as you may have noticed, she is 37 and attractive.

Call me crazy, but I think there’s a whiff of sexism in the coverage. If Yahoo’s interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn, had gotten the nod, does anyone think he’d be receiving a fraction of the media attention? Would his appointment have made the front page of the New York Times? (When Yahoo picked Scott Thompson as CEO just six months ago, the story ran in the Business section. Thompson got a lot more coverage when he was forced out over discrepancies in his resume.)

Carol Bartz, a former Yahoo CEO, is of course the same gender as Mayer. But because she is an older woman, she didn't attract the same kind of adoring press--in fact, Bartz was viewed as a foul-mouthed boss known for answering critics with an F-bomb at a public forum.

Mayer has a far softer image. And right now, the wow-she’s-a-lady tone is working to her advantage. She’s being portrayed as a fresh and exciting choice.

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But every Yahoo story will now become a Marissa Mayer story. She will own every negative development, as Carly Fiorina did at Hewlett-Packard and Meg Whitman at eBay. The tech press is fascinated by Mayer. She could reach superstar status if she turns the struggling company around—or take the blame if she doesn’t.

Not everyone has joined the swoon. Politico, among others, reported that Mayer is a big-time donor to the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

I met Mayer once and she seemed sharp and down to earth. I get why she’s big news, and obviously being a female trailblazer in Silicon Valley makes her stand out. But for the moment, the press is putting her on a pedestal, and from there it can be a steep fall.