Marissa Mayer and the Female Executive Persona

“We are, all of us, witnesses to our lives.”  – Sandra Scofield, Intro to “As a Farm Woman Thinks”


There is much ado about the September issue of Vogue and its profile on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. Most of the controversy stems from the high-fashion photo of Mayer, dressed in a gorgeous, sleeveless blue dress with stiletto heels.. She looks at home in Vogue and I am personally jonesing on the dress.

Posing in Vogue is far from a crime. The profile on Mayer herself is tame, perhaps a little too dependent on the halcyon glow from one of the few female CEOs in business today, but tame nonetheless. Yet I winced when I first saw the photo.


Because the stylized photo of Mayer does not have her standing in a board room, walking through office space or even just posing in front of a backdrop. No, this is truly a high fashion photo complete with awkward, out-of-the-ordinary pose. Mayer is lying on a white chaise lounge, upside down, carelessly holding an iPad emblazoned with the image of her face on the device’s screen.

If I didn’t know it was her, I would have thought it just another stylized image featuring a model playing dress up in expensive clothes. A well-recognized female fantasy shot. The kind that makes us adore the clothing and dream of being swept away, just for a moment, into Vogue’s grown-up, glorious Candyland with our make-up perfect, hair in place and being catered to by scores of people who know how to make us instantly glamorous.

But this was not a model or even a celebrity performer. This is a celebrated female CEO in male-dominated Silicon Valley. A woman with an incredible work ethic, strong business instinct and technical smarts. Laying upside down on a chaise lounge in Vogue is not what people expect to see of her.

I am sure that was the point of the whole exercise. She is illustrating that women in business can be seen as women, living inside the glowing fantasy of couture femininity that oozes across our culture like honey. And yet, yet, although I got the glamorous concept behind the image, my first thought was not “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It was  “Why does she want to pose as a cupcake?” By cupcake I mean something light, sugary, without consequence past the first bite. What I meant was that it seemed like she was putting on the persona of Smart-But-Still-Sexy accomplished woman. One of the scores of personas we women find ourselves wearing for public consumption on a regular basis.

Women are never defined by society as one thing. We are seen as a multiplicity of ourselves, reflections of humanity and its special subset of femininity. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if one is clear about what they want to lead with on any given day.

Yet taking this joy of multiplicity public is a dicey proposition, especially when you are, like it or not, one of the first of your kind. Women in the highest levels of business are still rare. As a culture we are still grappling with the ghosts of the feminist movement which opened doors that had been previously bolted shut and also left many women wondering how to refashion notions of femininity, beauty and sex for their own pleasure.

So when someone like Mayer – young, exceptional, successful – does anything it is watched intensely. But when any woman professional does anything it is also watched intensely. And here is the real controversy behind the Female Executive Persona. The list of ready-made observations, judgments really, that follow a successful businesswoman are still firmly in place because she is still somewhat rare and new.

–       How does she treat her staff?

–       Is she a Superwoman, always perfect and always juggling a mean schedule?

–       How does she wear her hair?

–       Is she fit or out of shape?

–       Are her clothing choices distracting?

–       Is she the kind of role model I want my daughter/sister/friend/myself to follow?

All this on top of whether or not she is good at her job.

The current, and holding, Female Executive Persona is called Steady Perfection. It thankfully allows for more variety than the former version but it still does not readily accommodate posing upside down on a chaise lounge in a designer dress. Now, if Mayer wants to buck against the tide, she has the freedom to do so. There is nothing to stop her from showing she is more than a self-described geek at heart.

The wince I evidenced at seeing Mayer strike a pose was more wistful than puritanical. I wished, as I often do, that the Female Executive Persona could allow for greater multiplicity. Is it fair that Mayer endures so many comments about her photo shoot because she is that rare female CEO? Theoretically, no. Practically, yes. Evolution is slow, steady and messy. Ultimately, the goal for successful women is to comfortably balance our female multiplicity and not feel we must display each persona as an individual card. I’ve seen it done. Really I have. And it is beautiful and strong and calm and real. It says “Here I Am” rather than “Look at Me” and in the end that is the real goal. To be seen as a complete person no matter what you are showing at any given point in time.

This goal has legs, too. It works professionally and personally. It takes all the personas, with their matching outfits, and puts them on a continuum that, when caught in a momentary pose, seems absolutely in alignment. It gives us what we really want – to be seen as our complete selves. So when that female businesswoman walks into the room the only persona you see is a layered one. And then, thankfully, you quickly turn back to business.



One Comment

  1. March 20, 2016 Reply

    “She was a genius,” says another Valley executive. “She played the power game better than anyone. She sucked it up, she didn’t quit, she took over what she could, she didn’t tag herself out. And when she had the opportunity to make a move, she did.”

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