All the news about Google executive Marissa Mayer’s appointment today as CEO of Yahoo will likely celebrate her as part of a microtrend of women moving up in Silicon Valley: Meg Whitman, recently named CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Virginia Rometty, the head of I.B.M. and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and newly named to the company’s board. But the irony of this moment is how little interest Mayer has in talking about women as a specific category in need of any particular help or attention. Mayer generously speaks at events for young women techies or business school students who always eagerly ask her what it was like to be one of the only women computer programmers at Google and she always says some version of: “I’m not a girl at Google. I’m a geek at Google.” In an interview I once asked her why there weren’t more girl geek computer science majors like her, but that too is not the kind of question she likes to answer: “I am much less worried about adjusting the percentage than about growing the overall pie,” she told me. “We are not producing enough men or women who know how to program.”
Mayer is tall and blond with Holly Golightly good looks and a great sense of style. She regularly appears in local society blogs at fancy parties on the arm of her cute entrepreneur husband. “You can be into fashion and be a geek and a good coder,” she says, and then hastens to add, “just like you can be a jock and a good coder. You don’t have to give up what you love.” She has appeared in many a girlish pose in fashion magazines but part of her shudders at being associated with anything too girly. For example, many snap profiles of her are likely to mention that she is obsessed with cupcakes and once made a spreadsheet of the perfect frosting. But in our interview Mayer made a point to tell me that that story wasn’t true; she’d only thought about cupcakes as a possible business venture before they became so trendy.
Sometimes the tough girl talk of the Silicon Valley women can be off-putting, such as when Lori Goler, Facebook’s human resources director, said in a New Yorker profile of Sandberg that dwelling on sexism is a “complete waste of time,” adding, “If I spend one hour talking about how I’m excluded, that’s an hour I am not spending solving Facebook’s problems.” But after spending some time with women out there I came to think of it as mostly practical. One would have to be blind not to notice the sea of male programmers at nearly every one of these companies. These women are not blind, or stupid. It’s more that they will themselves to ignore it so they can get their work done. They think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business.
I can’t say whether Mayer’s ascension to Yahoo is a good or bad career move; I will leave it to insiders to dissect. Yahoo has a sketchy history with its female CEOs, and it might be better to be a mid-executive at a fantastically successful company than CEO at a lesser one. But here is why we should cheer her new job nonetheless. As a model of the future American workplace, especially for women, Silicon Valley is as close to ideal as we have. Women there work hard but they work flexibly. Sandberg famously goes home at 5:30 every day and picks up again after her kids are in bed. Mayer worked on a “finding your rhythm” philosophy allowing her employees to leave early for events they really did not want to miss—kid soccer games or beers with old college roommates. Economist Claudia Goldin singles out Silicon Valley as an industry unique for punishing women hardly at all for taking time off work.
But the problem with the Silicon Valley example is that all this flexibility wasn’t translating into women rising into higher positions, or gaining more power. In terms of executive jobs, Silicon Valley had a no better record than most other prestigious workplaces. Now, that may be finally starting to change.