CEO Series Marissa Mayer: Female Tech Leader


The tech industry has been long subject to criticism for its lack of gender diversity, with females comprising only 14% of executive roles. The heart of the tech industry, Silicon Valley, has always had an infamous reputation for being a predominantly caucasian, male-dominated environment.

Rising above these conventions of the day, Marissa Mayer helped build a small company that would become one of Silicon Valley’s top-tier tech giants, and amassed an extensive portfolio of achievements including her appointment as CEO of Yahoo! in 2012. Having made Fortune magazine’s list of America’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business for 5 consecutive years, she is the youngest woman to ever be featured and arguably one of the most influential.

Humble beginnings

Mayer initially attended pre-med classes at Stanford University with the intention to become a paediatric neurosurgeon but after her freshman year, switched majors and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in symbolic systems with honours. She later continued with postgraduate study to acquire a Master in Computer Science whilst interning at the likes of SRI International and the UBS research lab in Switzerland.

Stemming from her internship and research experiences, Mayer received 14 job offers straight out of graduate school including an enticing consulting position at McKinsey & Company. Peaking the interest of founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, she was invited to join this up-and-coming company as their 20th employee and first female software engineer. Working 130 hour weeks with frequent all-nighters in her first five years at Google she became highly distinguished for her work ethic, a hallmark that carries through all aspects of her work-life. It didn’t take long for Mayer to become one of the company’s brightest stars, ascending through their ranks holding the positions of Product Manager, Director of Consumer Web Products and Vice President of Search Products and User Experience.

Her talent and contribution to building Google into the go-to search engine for billions of users is undeniable and as Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt commented, “It’s pretty hard to overstate her impact...she built the team that designs the products we all use”. Mayer understood the importance of UX design long before most, innovating in an industry that enterprises are still only beginning to understand the value of. Her tenure at Google spanning a decade long oversaw the company’s instantly recognisable layout for the search homepage, Gmail, Google Maps, the creation of Google AdWords (a proprietary advertising service responsible for 78% of their revenue reported in 2016) and the cultivation of Google’s finest talents.

"The utmost thing is the user experience, to have the most useful experience"

A company beyond saving?

In hopes of restoring Yahoo! to its former glory, co-founder David Filo’s admiration for Mayer’s reputation as a “visionary leader in user experience and product design” led to her appointment as CEO. Reaching a new pinnacle of her career, Mayer brought much-needed direction to the stagnant company and in many aspects, succeeded with flying colours.

Though her tenure was riddled with controversy, including the implementation of controversial management decisions such as the “no-work-at-home” policy and quarterly performance review system (QPR), it is self-evident of her achievements in overhauling the company. Taking the helm of a sinking ship, with layoffs to 14% of its workforce and a plummeting stock price, Mayer's leadership saw the expansion of the company's mobile base to 650 million monthly active users, and the generation of over $1 billion of advertising revenue.

However, the unforeseen final blow came in the infamous Yahoo! data breach of late 2016, with 1 billion user accounts being compromised and foreshadowing the company’s imminent demise. At the eventual acquisition of Yahoo! by Verizon last month, the transformation of Yahoo! under Mayer's guidance culminated in a monumental $4.8 billion transaction.

A legacy

Mayer is a role model for women in this industry and representative of the slowly dissipating “glass ceiling”, with more executive positions being offered to women now than ever before. Moving on from her prestigious position at Yahoo!, at 42 years of age Mayer is already being headhunted to potentially head Uber as their new CEO after the relative success seen with Yahoo!’s drastic turnaround.

Leaving behind a legacy for other women to succeed in the tech industry, Stanford has now become a renowned institution for Computer Science with majors seeing an approximate increase of 10% in female students since 2012. Though there still exists a large gender disparity (69.7% male to 30.3% female), this positive trajectory towards improving gender diversity is undoubtedly attributable to Mayer’s appointment to Yahoo! CEO in the same year. Her achievements in breaking the perpetuated stereotype of women in IT are truly inspirational and a shining example for aspiring women to hopefully follow in her wake.

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think there’s that moment of “wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”