Curious Capitalist

From Kim Polese to Marissa Mayer — How Far Have Women in Tech Come?

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Marissa Mayer (left), Kim Polese (right)

The appointment of pregnant Silicon Valley superstar Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo this past week has become the latest news peg for an ongoing debate about women, work and family-balance that has been raging in the media for the last several weeks. Anne Marie Slaughter lit the fuse with her Atlantic cover piece about how women still can’t have it all. But the fire had been burning hot for some time, particularly in technology, a field in which 70-hour workweeks are the norm for executives. Facebook’s COO, board member, and superwoman Sheryl Sandberg has been telling young women not to “leave before they leave” – meaning, to lean hard into the job, even if you are planning on having a family, so as not to miss crucial opportunities. Mayer became a poster child for that point by announcing that she’d take only a few weeks of maternity leave when she has her son in October, and “work throughout it.”

(LIST: The Ten Most Influential Women in Technology)

Predictably, she’s now become a lightening rod for the state of work-life balance in America. Was it a good thing that the Yahoo board couldn’t care less that she’s pregnant? Answer: yes. Was it a bad message to send to young women who will now feel under pressure not to take much maternity leave? Not really. I think most people realize that the highest-level jobs in corporate America require extreme hours and 24-7 commitment. And I think that many people in those sorts of jobs don’t see this as problematic because they don’t really notice the difference between work and life. I was struck by a quote from Mayer’s husband, entrepreneur/lawyer Zack Bogue, in a 2009 Vogue article about her: “There’s never a distinct line between work and home. Marissa’s work is such a natural extension of her. It’s not something she needs to shed at the end of the day.” That attitude isn’t for everyone. But as I wrote in my response to the Slaughter piece, I think you can have it all (including sleep), as long as you can figure out a way to not be a slave to face time.

But one issue that perhaps hasn’t gotten enough airtime yet is what the phenomenal rise of Marissa Mayer says about how far women in Silicon Valley have come. The answer to that is, “quite far,” and “not far enough.” Mayer is someone who smashes stereotypes about women and men, right brain and left brain – she’s a gorgeous hard-core technologist who poses for Vogue in her own couture and obsesses publicly about cupcakes, yet is widely acknowledged to be one of the smartest possible picks to run Yahoo (see my take on this here). Her ability to be all those things at once reminded me of another one-time Valley It Girl who wasn’t allowed to do that quite as seamlessly: Kim Polese.

(MORECan Google Star Marissa Mayer Save Yahoo!?)

Few people who don’t cover technology closely will remember Polese, but once upon a time in the late 1990s, she was the Marissa Mayer of the era. A Berkeley-trained astrophysicist who rolled out Java — the original programming language that brought interactivity to the web — for the testosterone-fueled enterprise software firm Sun Microsystems, she was also stunning and media savvy. Like Mayer, she was a former dancer, and hung with a crowd of power brokers. Her company Marimba was the hottest start up of 1997 (and that’s white hot), earning her a place on Time’s 25 Most Influential list that year.

But unlike Mayer, who is celebrated for blending beauty, media savvy, and a very large brain, Polese was lambasted for it. Her success at the time (she sold her start up in 2004 for 15 times the venture capital funding) was chalked up to “hype,” and even to her looks. She was ridiculed for appearing in an Anne Klein ad with a bunch of other heavyweight women. (Hello, what smart start-up founder in need of publicity would pass up that opportunity?) As recently as May of this year, she was trotted out by an ill-informed Forbes writer as a cautionary tale to Sheryl Sandberg, both of whom he felt had spent too much time talking to the press and not enough on real business accomplishments. (You can read this ridiculous post, Polese’s sharp response, and his subsequent apology here.)

I interviewed Polese, who started yet another company after Marimba and now sits on a number of boards and is active in public policy, a few times back in the 1990s. I remembered her as a sharp technologist who, if anything, downplayed her appearance at launch parties and interviews. So, I decided to call her up and see what she had to say about Mayer’s appointment, and what it said about women in technology. “It’s amazing news, and I’m excited for her, though it’s going to be a tough job,” said Polese. “But the fact that we’re even talking about her pregnancy means we haven’t come far enough,” noting that nobody asks about the time that the average male CEO’s nasty divorce proceedings might take away from the job. Fair enough.

(MOREMarissa Mayer: Yahoo!’s Utterly Surprising, Completely Logical Pick for CEO)

More important, said Polese, was the fact that top women in technology get so much press (for good and bad reasons) in part because they are still so exceptional – and are becoming more so in some areas. While women made up 37% of computer science graduates in 1984, they make up only 12% today, a fall that Polese attributes in part to the “geek” culture of the Valley. “I think women see technology as a place dominated by the Mark Zuckerberg model – that it’s about young guys and their culture.” She’s hopeful, though, that the feminization of consumer technology will help change things — women now buy more tech gadgets, do more searches, and spend more time on their smartphones and using the major social media sites than men do. What’s more, “Google and Facebook have a culture that encourages diversity and flexibility,” notes Polese, unlike the enterprise end of the business that she came out of, which is still very male dominated.

At the risk of sounding sexist myself, I ask Polese if the sedately colored pantsuits I remember her donning as her 1990s uniform (which are a sharp contrast to Mayer’s hyper feminine Oscar de la Renta dresses) were an attempt to fit in with the guys. “Nope,” she laughs, “I was just being me. And Marissa is just being herself.” Hopefully in another ten years, that won’t be worth any mention at all.

9 comments
BobLyle
BobLyle

Kim Polese is a cautionary tale of a young pretty woman who was OVERBLOWN -- named one of the top 25 most influential people in the US in her day it was all BOGUS marketing PR -- she was a product manager -- but she was young, pretty, and a woman. Kim Polese made it HARDER for women execs who came after her because everyone thinks, if they are young and pretty -- they'll be another Kim Polese. 

Polese was credited for being on the team that changed the name of Oak to Java. And she was on the cover of magazines. She cried WOLF. Then they used her name and propped her up as CEO of Marimba. She cried WOLF again. And then she disappeared for 20 years -- oh I forgot she's on a government panel.

Then along comes a Marissa Meyer who was responsible for the design of Google's blank home page -- and you can see how people like me say "Here's another one crying WOLF". Maybe not maybe Marissa Meyer's skills go beyond designing blank home pages. But Kim Polese cried wolf twice and I fell for it twice. 

Go read the original article on Polese by the Forbes writer Jackson -- he NAILED IT. 

Owen
Owen

The first major product revamp to come out of Yahoo after Marissa Mayer took over last summer was a new version of Yahoo Mail, completed last fall.

Yahoo has hundreds of millions of mail users. Yahoo makes a lot of money off these users because they often end up looking at other ad-supported Yahoo pages, including Yahoo.com, before or after they check their email.

Thanks to the user migration to non-Web-based, mobile email, Yahoo is beginning to see fewer of these money-making sessions. It can't afford to accelerate the process with bad product. May be they should concentrate on android based mobile application for the new product probably cross platform. 


Samantha Weissman
Samantha Weissman

I agree that women have come quite far in the tech industry, but still not far enough.  Marissa Mayer's ascension to CEO of Yahoo is indicative of where the industry may be headed, with more women heading large tech companies.  However, there are still steps of action that must be taken to mitigate the gender disparity in the tech industry, discussed further here- http://fueled.com/blog/what-ma...

nekolafenice
nekolafenice

Not that far: never forget, Marissa is yet another in a long line of women who slept with the boss (Larry Page) to get ahead!

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Put simple. In 40, 50, 60, we

had good leaders coming out from the tactics of wars and they had brains of

strategic. Now we have fresh for MBA ( and there are so many that you will see

one in VET and the vacancy is for the finance.. How do this meat at one point

can amaze any. There are good jobs if you are a dishonest and that is truth

like this or not. We have leaders who teach us this. I am not saying you have

to fabricate a certificate or diploma but you have to deeply checked up for at

least 2 months what is the industry does , what is the cooperation doing then

apply. The hunger does not allow us to do a research on this. You end up with a

B.Sc in economics and be driver of a taxi. This is truth in UAE. There are

millions from India who are brilliant but there are no jobs. They left telling

the family that they heed for the money plucked from the trees and cars near

them, they will take up any work in UAE The diplomas are hanging in the rooms

sharing one room for 14 . Need to know more 2 The population growing daily. The

father will work to the relatives. 3 wife will influence husband to take the

apple of my eye clever or not he gets the employment 4 the place of employment

at time chews half of your salary as there are no good cheap accommodation near

you place of employment. 5 You want a good job the lady looks better all well

groomed. Who gets the employment? lady There you have the detailed C Vs of many

I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

David A. Frankel
David A. Frankel

Sorry -- I have to beg to differ with the previous commenter on a number of levels. If you are Yahoo, this is absolutely the best move you can make right now, and she is hands down the strongest and most capable executive (male or female) for the job. 

Mayer has highly relevant experience, effectively overseeing key product strategy at a highly successful company in the same space over 13 years.  Through Google's explosive growth (much of which came through acquisition, which she oversaw), she has also seen just about every innovative technology that has been invented over the last 5 years.  Mayer has worked for both Google's founders and an outside hired CEO, and has presumably sat on most BoD meetings over the past decade -- so she has a good inside view of what it takes to run a multi-faceted public company.  She is as prepared as anyone can be to streamline and refocus YHOO.  If she fails, in my opinion (and perhaps one shared by the YHOO board), YHOO is a lost cause and they are screwed anyway.  Very much worth taking the risk on a first time CEO of this caliber.

Too young and too inexperienced to be CEO of a multi-billion dollar company? She doesn't wear a hoodie and adidas flip flops does she?

duduong
duduong

I am all for strong and capable women taking executive positions, but in this case, Mayer is just too young and too inexperienced to be a CEO of a multiple-billion-dollar company, especially given the low esteem from her old employer, Google. Of course, she could be an under-appreciated genius, but then the Google management must have been idiots, which I doubt. It is far more likely that the bumbling Yahoo board just made another costly mistake.

duduong
duduong

There are probably 20-30 people that fit your description in Google alone. Do you really think every one of them is worth $70m? What entry in Mayer's resume indicates that she is better than the rest? Just because she had been sitting in the meeting room does not imply that she had a clue. A lot more often than not, these mid-level managers are just empty suits along for the ride.

Judging from top Google executives' comments, this is exactly what they think of her. She hasn't had any real responsibility for over a year and is on verge of being completely sidelined. Who has a better judgement of her ability? Those who worked with her for 15 years, or those who interviewed her for a month?

The funny part about your comment is the excuse you already come up for her inevitable failure. Is Yahoo in more desperate state than Apple a decade ago just before Jobs re-joined? I think not. Anyone who gets paid $70m without a track record to prove her worth better do so with future performance, or she is going down in history as another lottery winner. Ever heard of the name Apotheker?

nekolafenice
nekolafenice

YES. Most people at Google are glad to see the back of her. I agree that is she most likely too young and too self-promoting to do good at Yahoo. Time will tell, but I think Google is the winner here.