Is Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo Legacy a Reminder of The Glass Cliff in Tech?

Extracted from The Glass Cliff: Why Women in Power are Undermined and How to Fight Back by Sophie Williams (Macmillan Business, £20)

All of my life I’ve heard about the invisible, but seemingly inevitable barrier that the Glass Ceiling represents in women’s careers. We’ve spent so long talking about the Glass Ceiling existing, and what it’s like to live and work underneath it, that it seems to me we’ve never taken the time to move the conversation forwards – to look at what the experience of leadership was like for those women who did manage to break through. The Glass Cliff is the story of women’s leadership journeys beyond the Glass Ceiling.

Is There A Glass Cliff in Tech?

One example of life beyond the Glass Ceiling is the experience of Marissa Mayer, who, in 2012 took on the role of CEO of Yahoo, prompting Forbes to run a piece which began: ‘Did Marissa Mayer just receive the job offer of a lifetime or did she just ascend to the pinnacle of the Glass Cliff? That’s the question that will be answered over the next several months as Mayer takes over as CEO of Yahoo.’

Five years later, when, after a tumultuous period as the struggling internet giant’s leader, Mayer stepped down from her role – amid widespread reports that she had been left ‘tarnished’ – it seemed that the question had been answered.

From the start, it was clear that Mayer would have her work cut out turning the fortunes of the business around.

Yahoo’s period of difficulty, and its struggle to find stability and market fit, was reflected in a period of tumultuous leadership successions. If we include interim CEOs, Mayer was the fifth person to hold the position in a period of less than twelve months.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite the way things played out. During her time as the leader of Yahoo, Mayer was able to make some positive changes. She rebooted various products, sunset others, and acquired a huge forty-one start-ups.

But the role was not smooth sailing for Mayer. She faced endless scrutiny and criticism during her time as the CEO of the internet giant. Like Karren Brady, she was criticized for the length of her maternity leave (both leaders were criticized for how short, rather than how long their breaks were). She was also criticized for ‘refusing to dwell’ on sexism in the workplace, for ‘trying to be Steve Jobs’ and for being overly didactic, with employees reportedly being told they needed to do things ‘because Marissa said so’. The criticisms were endless.

And some of them were well deserved.

In 2015, Verizon launched a takeover of Yahoo. A year later, soon after the merger was complete, Mayer stepped down from her role as Yahoo’s CEO and from the business’s board. Speaking about her tenure within the business, one analyst commented: ‘She was poorly matched to the job from day one [. . .] It wasn’t that she didn’t work hard. She just lacked the needed skills to execute a turnaround, and the Yahoo board was no apparent help, either.’

Stepping into a new position, particularly one in leadership, is usually the culmination of years of work, expertise and experience – and the cause of much-deserved celebration. In most cases, we enter new roles full of excitement and passion – ready to make our mark in the next step of our professional journey.

It might be for this reason that so much of our cultural discussion about female career advancement has been satisfied with stopping at the Glass Ceiling – if we acknowledge the existence of that barrier, we are then able to build our own imagined narratives about those pioneering women who do manage to break through it. Not filling in the details beyond that point allows us to picture a new leader flourishing in an environment where her upward trajectory knows no bounds, and the sky is the limit.

But, unfortunately, that is very often not the case. All too frequently, the reality of what happens next is the story of the precarious position of the Glass Cliff, where female leaders are set up to fail, through no fault of their own, before they’ve even begun.

Extracted from The Glass Cliff: Why Women in Power are Undermined and How to Fight Back by Sophie Williams (Macmillan Business, £20)

Biography: Sophie Williams is an ex Global Leader at Netflix and has held the titles of COO and CFO in London advertising agencies. She is a TED Speaker (The Glass Cliff – Why Some Leaders Aren’t Set Up For Success, 1.5 million+ views), and the voice of Instagram’s @OfficialMilliennialBlack.

The Glass Cliff (2024) is her third book. Also, by Sophie Williams: Anti-Racist Ally (2020), and Millennial Black (2021)

See more breaking stories here.