One more headline that slams women CEOs in the tech industry: “Yahoo is for sale; bidders line up; Marissa Mayer is Toast.’” The search engine optimization alone is going to weigh in on any future prospects Mayer may have. Now many think this has nothing to do with her gender, others will deflect and say she ‘just failed,’ and more will charge that Yahoo, which was once a $255 billion company, was just out of it’s league in the current climate of the new tech boom.
“In all things, tech not withstanding, women leaders are judged more harshly than men whether warranted or not. Sad but true,” said Kimberly Bryant, Founder, Black Girls Code.
Yahoo has been struggling for some time but no one will remember any of the other six CEOs who failed the company in the past nine years. It might not have even been fixable when Mayer took over in 2012. But that isn’t what any of the most recent headlines indicate. Headlines implicating Marissa Mayer for Yahoo’s failure are unfair and hurts how women CEOs are viewed and valued.
Other firms that fail, including unicorn startup Zenefits, rarely garner headlines blaming the CEO for their demise. Instead, we see: “Will VCs Rein in Their Unicorns?” or “Could a unicorn culture have been Zenefits’ undoing?” To the latter it wasn’t the unicorn culture, but rather the failure of Packard Conrad, Zenefits’ CEO, who was really at fault for Zenefits’ fall after revelations that his company used unlicensed brokers to sell health insurance in multiple states under Conrad’s watch. Yet his name is rarely, if ever, placed with the words failure the way Mayer’s is these days.
Women comprise less than three percent of CEOs at fortune 500 companies, and only one who is a woman of color, Zerox CEO Ursula Burns. Data from Project Diane found that less than 0.2% of tech startups headed by black women get funding. That means every headline that depicts a woman as a failure is participating in a culture that has no problem with men who fail but spends an enormous amount of time pointing out the failures of women, people of color and especially women of color. This mindset was further revealed earlier this month when Bethenny Frankel, CEO of SkinnyGirls Vodka, recently told an audience of women entrepreneurs to hire a white male spokesperson to represent their brands.
I’m sure Zenefits’ Conrad will come up with a new startup despite his billion dollar failure. VCs will no doubt throw more money at him. This is the problem with Silicon Valley and it adversely affects how women and women of color are viewed by the industry. These men can fail over and over again but the failures of women, particularly women of color, are treated differently. The media also perpetuates these types of biases with stories and headlines like those listed above. These nine CEO’s failed. One reportedly said that it was “incredibly stressful and draining.” and that’s why he quit.
When women are successful in tech, their histories are often erased. Heddy Lamarr, the inventor of the technology that made it possible for us to have wifi, is rarely mentioned unless it’s women’s history month.
“We kind of run our history through a rinse cycle and wash the women out of them,” Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, said at SXSW panel discussion last month.
We have to address these implicit biases in order to have a diverse, innovative and successful tech industry. The real unicorn startups are led by women, particularly women of color, who are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country.
Shireen Mitchell is a serial founder, author, speaker, diversity analyst, and a political, digital & social strategist.