Our friends over at TheJaneDough today were outraged that in an interview Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, the first female engineer at Google and arguably the most important woman in the world this week, for not considering herself a feminist and saying that the word has a bit of a negative connotation these days. I don’t agree with feminism having a negative connotation as much as a misunderstood one, but I do think it is absolutely fine that Marissa doesn’t consider herself a feminist. I think it is part of the reason she is successful as she is and her way of thinking is something other women should embrace.
Back in March I was lucky enough to attend a chat with Marissa at the 92Y (watch the clip below.) When Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, asked her about often being the only woman in the room not just at Google but in her math and computer classes at Stanford and she said she think it helped her that was she was fairly oblivious to that fact. Marissa said she has always been not very “gender aware” or “gender blind” rather. She knew she was always very good at the maths and sciences. Her teachers just told her she was good at them and not good job considering you are a girl or you are the only girl. When she was taking computer science and cognitive classes in college she didn’t really notice she was the only woman in most of her classes or one of only a few women until a college columnist wrote about “the blond woman in all of the upper-level comp classes.” Marissa may never felt dissuaded from going into computer science because she didn’t care that she was the only girl.
There were 5% less women with computer jobs in 2009 than in 2000 and less women are earning degrees in computer science as well than they were in 2000. One of the reasons we have so few women going into computer science and engineering is because young women focus on the fact that they are the only girl. They worry and think, ‘Is this wrong? I’m a girl, should I not like this? I better drop out.’ Marissa never thought that way and it helped her tremendously.And maybe that is what we need to teach young women. If you go in thinking, I am a woman in science and that is all they will care about then that is what people will hone in on. But if you go in just thinking, “I’m in science,” they may focus on the fact that you are the odd woman out less. Just because you are a woman in computer science doesn’t mean you are going to be anti-social and wear a hoodie all the time. “My goal when I talk about women in technology really is to tell a little bit about my story and how I’ve done it. Computer science, especially in pop culture, comes across very flat. There’s the stereotype of the hacker that causes people to think, “For me to do this, I have to be that.” And you don’t have to be that. You can keep who you are and you can keep that part of yourself and keep your interests and still be a great computer scientist. While I think there’s an intensity that makes for a better computer scientist, I don’t think that intensity comes in any particular package.” In another interview she said, “You can be good at technology and love fashion and art. You can be good at technology and be sporty. You can be good at technology and being a mom,” she said once. “You can wear ruffles!”
In the interview TheJaneDough references Marissa says she clearly supports equal rights for women and thinks they are just as capable as men, if not more so in certain ways. She is also helping getting more women into computer science not by telling them that because they are women they should go into computer science but that more people in general need to go into the field. She said in this interview, “I worry that a lot of times the conversation gets to be focused on what percentage of the pie is women but the truth is, the pie isn’t big enough. We need a lot more people in computer science.” She actually thinks even asking the question of how can we get more women into computer science can handicap progress.
She also helps women get into the field by just telling her story. Marissa didn’t get into computers and tech until she was in college. At the 92Y she said, “Because it moves really fast, you can catch up really fast,” she said. She made this point because she finds that a common misconception with women in technology is that girls are intimidated when they get to college and are thrown in with the computer science boys they think they are way behind. Little boys have been playing video and computer games for years so she thinks girls get intimated and think they can’t catch up. But Marissa says they can, even if they don’t start until college. Look at her.
So no Marissa Mayer isn’t Gloria Steinem and she is not going to march in protests complaining that women aren’t treated right. What she is going to do is get up, go to her new office at Yahoo and run a company. She is going to show little girls that you can run a company, in the technology sector, and have a kid and wear ruffles if you want to.