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Female Silicon Valley CEO: Marissa Mayer's view on gender in the workplace 'sets us back'

leila janah sama group

Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation

Leila Janah, Sama Group founder and CEO.

Just like Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer, Leila Janah is a prominent female business leader on the Silicon Valley scene.

Janah is the founder and CEO of Sama Group, a non-profit business that connects impoverished women to jobs in tech. Writing on her LinkedIn page, she says she admires Mayer for her "badass" leadership, but she completely disagrees with her views on women in tech.

In an interview with Backchannel's Steven Levy, Mayer said: "I never play the gender card…the moment you play into that, it's an issue." Moreover, she said that the gender of a CEO in Silicon Valley doesn't matter, adding: "In technology we live at a rare, fast-moving pace. There are probably industries where gender is more of an issue, but our industry is not one where I think that's relevant."

As badass as Mayer is, and as much as I admire her for leading Yahoo! into brave new territory, I couldn't get this comment out of my head. It disregards a lot of recent data on women in tech and the experience of a huge number of women leaders in the Valley, myself included. And I think it sets us back.

Janah writes that there are two prominent examples from Mayer's own life that show how her gender has had an impact on how people perceive her and her ability to run a large tech company.

The first was a 2013 Yahoo shareholder meeting, in which Greek investor George Polis stood up and said: "This is my personal opinion. First is, I'm George Polis, I have 2,000 shares in Yahoo. I'm Greek and I'm a dirty old man and you look attractive Marissa."

Apparently, the personal comment was ignored. Mayer's lack of response demonstrated a stoicism and subtle strength that is her hallmark. Maybe her strategy is similar to what I do when catcalled on the street- ignore it and move on. But wouldn't it be better to not get catcalled and disrespected in the first place? At least in a forum like a shareholder meeting? And isn't it unfair to expect women to have a thick skin, instead of expecting men to behave decently?

I can recall at least five instances when my gender led to a borderline abusive comment that chipped away at my sense of self-worth. And I know dozens of incredible women leaders in tech who have dealt with the same issue. It's not that we're weak and can't take a joke, or that we don't appreciate flattery from men. It's that we shouldn't have to fight for the right to be seen as professionals when we're in professional settings, doing our jobs.

The second instance from Mayer's career that shows her gender has had an impact on how people perceive her was how she "set a standards for how new mothers can run companies."

Mayer famously returned to work as Yahoo CEO just two weeks after giving birth in 2012. And she has also worked to improve paid perennial leave and increasing benefits to new parents within Yahoo.

But Janah points out that most companies can't offer benefits to women in tech such as egg freezing, extended maternity leave, or on-site childcare because they don't have the budgets. And that this setup affects how women move up (or don't) in the tech hierarchy.

Janah summarizes: "Knowing this, how can we deny that gender is relevant in tech?"

She adds: "I hope Mayer continues to build her legacy at Yahoo!, and I wish her every success. But I also hope she's able to demonstrate compassion for the legions of women in tech who have to deal with both subtle and explicit gender bias. We need to stand together if we want gender parity."

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