Curious Capitalist

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

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.