Marissa Mayer and the Failure of Trickle-Down Empowerment

Why the rise and fall of another ‘superhero’ woman—now Yahoo’s controversial CEO—couldn’t be more Zeitgeisty.


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On Monday, Yahoo confirmed that it was, to borrow a technical term, lighting itself on fire and driving off a cliff. After its acquisition by Verizon is complete, it is to cease existing as “Yahoo” and start being known by a new nonsense word: Altaba. The web giant’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, would be diving in tandem with the Yahoo brand, resigning from its board if and when the deal closes.

Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo has been singular for several reasons. On a practical level, it was a gutsy hire when she was brought on in 2012, as a product-oriented person who, at 37, was young and relatively inexperienced with running an entire company. Her management style occasionally raised eyebrows. Although she was six months pregnant when she accepted the job, shortly after coming aboard she banned telecommuting for employees. After her son was born, she had a nursery built in her office. Other Yahoo employees who were working caretakers didn’t have the same luxury. She spent lavishly on high-profile hires like Katie Couric, who cost Yahoo $10 million a year and exposed it to controversy at a time the company’s reputation couldn’t exactly afford the ding. Ultimately, a combination of overzealous acquisition, questionable decisions that led to poor employee morale, and plain old bad luck grounded Yahoo’s aspirations for a turnaround.

Then there was the woman thing. Mayer’s womanhood, her glamorous public image, her status as a mother, her outspoken stances on feminism and women at work made her rise and ultimate thwarting uniquely of-this-era. She is a woman who has achieved impressively, who has benefited from feminism immensely. And yet, she is a woman who didn’t feel compelled to identify with the ideology of feminism. In fact, in an interview early in her tenure as CEO of Yahoo, she distanced herself from the activism that gave women the right to vote and obtain birth control and the right to apply for credit cards without a husband’s permission, saying she found the whole thing too “negative.”

In considering the likely end of Mayer’s time as Yahoo’s CEO, it’s hard not to compare her to other women whose failures have made headlines recently. People like Mayer, Elizabeth Holmes, and Hillary Clinton were all poised to take over the world. Like Wile E. Coyote running off the edge of a cliff, we have a few blissful moments where we watch the women who we’d like to be our heroes run across thin air before skidding to a stop, looking down, and, after a sheepish wave to camera, dropping.

Mayer didn’t publicly embrace the role of a woman who has been helped and who helps. There was a Vogue spread, but no Lean In. There were speaking engagements and honorary degrees and invitations to appear in women’s magazines, but no glass-ceiling talk.

Women like Mayer win when it comes to identifying as feminist. Say yes and they’re suddenly held to the standards of academics and advocates with specific ideas of what feminists must do, and they’re attacked by those who find the notion of feminism distasteful. Say no and they’re chided for turning their backs on the academics and activists who paved the way for their success. It’s a little perplexing how often powerful women are asked whether or not they’re feminists. Men are rarely asked if they are, and the rich and powerful are rarely asked about other ideologies. Imagine if every interview with a CEO included a question about whether or not they believed in God, or whether they identified as a Democrat or Republican.

Mayer may not have identified as a feminist, but men who hate women sure celebrated her stumbles as though she was. A curious amount of schadenfreude followed any announcement of a problem at Yahoo. It seems her existence rubbed some observers the wrong way. And some who would have legitimate reasons to critique her work seemingly shied away, out of fear of being roped in with those who would howl about a woman being happy and successful no matter what her job, or how good she was at it.

This combination of voices—idiotic critique from those who would hate something no matter what, combined with reticence on the part of the thoughtful to offer useful critique from a place of good faith—is something that seems uniquely zeitgeisty, especially when it comes to powerful women. And, in that sense, Mayer’s rise and fall stands out as something that makes more sense than most things that have happened in the last 12 months.

In recent years, there’s been an upswell in corporate feel-good feminism. The type of feminism that means well but tends to focus on fighting the battles and celebrating the victories of only the most privileged among women, whether or not those women believe in those principles. The type of feminism that envisions that the collective action of all feminists will push women up the ladder one at a time, and that she, upon reaching the top, will reach down and pull more women up behind her.

But that capitalist model leaves everybody who wasn’t already within arm’s reach of the chosen women behind. As the front of the line advances skyward, the women at the back of the line move further and further from the c-suite. How can women identify as part of a group with common interests and values if it seems the loudest voices in that group are telling the least privileged that the battle they should be fighting is one that allows Marissa Mayer to have a nursery in her office? Who cares if a movie star is making millions less than her male counterpart if the U.S. still has an embarrassingly high maternal mortality rate among women of color? Having a female president is not the same as all women becoming the president. Looking at a glamourous photoshoot of a female Fortune 500 CEO in Vogue is not the same as being able to afford child-care. Feeling good isn’t the same as progress.

It seems feminists want so strongly for a woman to be a visionary CEO, a tech genius, a president that they’re able to overlook glaring flaws, that they’re unwilling to critique or to be tolerant of honest critique from others. We want superheroes; we’ve got plain old human beings.

It can be tough to tease out legitimate skepticism of the work of women like Marissa Mayer from misogyny; misogyny has been practicing blending in for years. But it’s also silly to pretend that trickle-down feminism, that which trusts those at the top will somehow benefit those at the bottom in any tangible way, is a tenable focus for advocates of gender equality. Nobody can lift that many bootstraps on her own. Even with Alibaba money.