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MIT Technology Review

Marissa Mayer on the rise of women technology leaders

The former Yahoo! CEO says women in tech must still shield themselves from critics, even as they push for gender parity in recruiting and hiring.

October 3, 2019

From 1999 to 2012, Marissa Mayer was one of the most public faces at Google, where she helped to build the company’s core search and advertising platforms. From 2012 to 2017 she steered Yahoo! through its final years as an independent business. In other words, she’s spent a long time at the center of the Silicon Valley whirlwind.

In this special episode, Business Lab host Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau asks Mayer how conditions for women technology leaders have changed during her career. The conversation quickly turns to the thinking behind Mayer’s 2013 decision to put an end to Yahoo’s fairly permissive policy around working from home and how she dealt with the blowback from that decision on social media and the technology press. Mayer says that if a leader is trying to foster a stronger culture inside their company, they can’t worry too much about what everyone outside the company is saying about them.

Mayer goes on to speak about her new company, Lumi Labs, where she says engineers are looking for everyday consumer applications for the latest artificial intelligence techniques. And ultimately the conversation returns to the question of how technology companies can move closer to gender parity, and why the drive to recruit more women into technical roles has to come from the very top.

This episode is sponsored by (ISC)2. With more than 140,000 global members, (ISC)2 is the world’s largest non-profit membership association of certified cybersecurity professionals. It offers a portfolio of credentials that are part of a holistic programmatic approach to security.

Show notes and links:

Lumi Labs 

(ISC)2

Full transcript

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.

This episode is sponsored by (ISC)2. With more than 140,000 global members, (ISC)2 is the world’s largest non-profit membership association of certified cybersecurity professionals. It offers a portfolio of credentials that are part of a holistic programmatic approach to security. Later in the program, I’ll speak with Jennifer Manila, the chairperson of the (ISC)2 board of directors, about the quest to create more roles for women in the field of cybersecurity.

But first, we’ve got a special conversation with Marissa Mayer. Of course, Mayer was frequently in the news as the CEO of Yahoo! from 2012 to 2017. But for many years before that, she was at Google, helping to build the company’s core search and advertising platforms. She spent a long time at the center of the Silicon Valley whirlwind. We wanted to ask her how things have changed over that time, particularly for women leaders in technology. We ended up talking about the thinking behind Mayer’s 2013 decision to put an end to Yahoo’s fairly permissive policy around working from home, and how she dealt with the blowback from that decision on social media and the technology press. So here’s my conversation with Marissa Mayer.

Elizabeth: If you think back to when you first became CEO of Yahoo!, or even further, perhaps back to 1999 when you started at Google, what do you think now has changed for women technology leaders?

Marissa: It’s interesting, it’s easy for me to put myself back at Google because my current office is the same place I started my career. So I’m back in the original Google office now with my new company. But I think that things some things have definitely changed for the better. I tend to be more of the optimist, so I think that there are things that change for the better. Most notably, that technology has come a lot further and is a lot more integrated day to day in society, especially the Internet. And so, you know, when I was starting out, I was an oddity in computer science and women were maybe the minority in computer science. But I was an oddity to the point where, a lot of my schoolmates had been programming since they were 11. You ended up being a programmer if you were a teenage boy, really into video games and science fiction. And I didn’t fit that mold. And I think a lot of those stereotypes, because technology has become so much more pervasive and people now understand the kinds of opportunities and applications that can be built on the Internet I think that people have a much better understanding of how becoming a software engineer has can ultimately have an impact on what you’re doing day to day. And that helps a lot with people entering computer science overall, both men and women.

Elizabeth: I’m interested in leadership and the topic of female leadership, and I’m particularly interested in talking to you about this. You know, I’ve read a lot of articles and a lot of characterizations, probably fairly and unfairly, of your leadership. And I’m super interested in that challenge between being clear, direct, and authoritative, and on the other hand being “appealing.” And I’m very interested in what your point of view is on that and how how you’ve been able to maneuver it and kind of manage it in your own career.

Marissa: Sure. I will start off by saying I haven’t read the same articles you have because I make a point of not reading them. And so in my case, I think it’s really important to be authentic and true to yourself in terms of what you think the right thing to do is in a particular moment. I think people respect that type of leadership and while certainly some of those moves might be misunderstood outside, to me, I always have looked at how does the organization respond to those moves? A classic example for me—it wasn’t really germane to the overall business of Yahoo!—But it’s the work-from-home thing. Outside, widely misunderstood. I became the enemy of work-from-home. And I wasn’t trying to make a big political statement about the way that people want to work in the future and the future of workforces. I was just trying to say, look, if we’re going to try and turn this company around, something like 10 to 20 percent of the people are a bit out to lunch.

And interestingly, it wasn’t even people who were formerly working from home. It was people who were informally working from home. Right? Like, just not showing up to work that day because it was raining or there was a lot of traffic and they were like, “Oh, I’ll just work from home today.” We had little stickers and magnets you could hang up in your cube that said “Working from home” that you just put up at a moment’s notice. And I was actually approached by about 30 different people inside, high performing employees at Yahoo!, who said, “Look, you’ve brought all this energy back, and we’re trying to turn the company around. And once a week I have to stop and call this poor performer on my team who doesn’t bother to come into the office and catch them up on what’s going on m project. And it’s just not that much fun.”

That wasn’t the culture we wanted moving forward. This was Yahoo’s moment and it was all hands on deck and the people there understood it. So I think it is a good example of a time where I wasn’t driven by the external misconceptions of what was motivating that leadership decision. I was more motivated by what was happening inside the company. And inside the company, I think it was very well understood and actually desired that we make that change.

And I also feel that, you know, for me, I focused less on the personal appeal of, you know, do you want to work for me and more on, you know, I’m trying to lead an organization, trying to build a company, trying to foster a culture. And, you know, is that something that is appealing and attractive to employees?

Elizabeth: I have a lot of understanding of the point of view that you’re coming from, particularly given the turnaround challenges you faced. You mentioned that—I think probably rightly, smartly—you don’t look at and haven’t read all the articles I have. But how do you how do you handle that? I mean, what’s your coping mechanism for shutting out the voices from the peanut gallery? I’m just really interested in how you cope.

Marissa: Well, in 2008, I had gotten engaged. It was a great and fun time in my life. Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, Gawker had come to town and had created a blog about us. And there were various characters that made appearances on there. And unfortunately, I was one of them. And it was, you know, it was a caricature of me. It wasn’t me. And, you know, they wrote really awful articles. And I was like, you know, wait, it’s one thing to criticize my product decisions, my career, my business, the arts and leadership. But it’s whole ‘nother to go into the personal realm where. My fiancé wasn’t a public person. And things like that.

I was at Google at the time. I talked to the people at Google about how bothered I was. And someone just said, “You don’t like it?” And, you know, I thought they were going to offer to call up Gawker and try and get them to calm down. I’m not even sure that was possible. And they said, “Just stop reading it.” And I was like, look, that that’s impossible. I’m a leader. My team is reading it sometimes. I need to respond to what they say.” And then they kind of pushed it a little further and they said, “Do you?” And it made me really think like, do I need to read it? Does it actually make me a better leader?

And I came to the conclusion, no. Because a lot of times when they were wrong, it was just a waste of energy to internalize that. And in the cases where they were right or partially right, it caused me sometimes to do things differently. To hang on to an idea that they lauded as really, really good. And not even just Gawker, but other media sources. You know, someone says, “Wow, what a smart move, what a smart acquisition.” And you hang on to it more. Or someone criticizes it and it makes you more likely to second guess yourself. And I realized that I didn’t think ultimately a lot of those things were helpful.

So from that observation on so at the end of 2008, I really did stop reading the word for word things written about me, both positive and negative online and in the media. That isn’t to say that I’m not aware of them. I just feel that one of the reasons that criticism hurts in most cases is because some part of it is true. It might be 1 percent true. It might be 100 percent true. And I feel like if you’re going to whether those criticisms and you’re going to sift through what matters versus what doesn’t matter, it’s always nicer to hear it synthesized by someone who loves you or someone who at least is invested in you.

And so, when work-from-home happened, my husband came to me and said, “I know you did this thing at Yahoo! that you thought was necessary for the work culture. But it’s getting kind of a lot of pickup out in the Twittersphere.” I was like, “What do you mean pickup?”

Elizabeth: “What do you mean, a lot?”

Marissa: I was like, “Look, this was an internal decision for Yahoo! And it was obvious and necessary.” And he’s like, “Well, people are taking it a different direction, about whether or not you’re in favor of work-from-home at all and whether or not this is a commentary on working mothers.” And I was like, “What?” But even just having him give that more gentle—but eventually thorough, as I asked more questions—analysis of what was going on, and then talking to our PR department who of course had read all the articles and then synthesized it down to some of the core issues, is more helpful.

Elizabeth: So you mentioned that your new company is in the same space as Google started. It’s called Lumi Labs. According to your website, you’re working on consumer applications enabled by AI.

Marissa: Yes.

Elizabeth: And it’s a tech incubator. I don’t know how much you can tell us, but whatever you can tell us, would you?

Marissa: Sure. We’re a tech incubator in more of the old school train of thought. We’re not an investment firm, so we’re not investing in other people’s startups, or finding teams to invest in. We have a series of ideas that we’d like to explore, applications we’d like to build. Some of them are theses that we could actually base a product line around. And so we’ve worked on hiring very capable engineers who could work on any range of products, and have been staffing them to start to build these products. That said, right now we look much more like a traditional startup because we’re working on our first idea. It’s become fairly well developed and we want to bring it to market.

So right now, we’re working on one idea. Eventually, our view is that Lumi Labs will evolve from being more of an idea incubator, as opposed to a funding incubator, and become more of a classic startup, and eventually a company where we have a line of products. And we’re by definition going to take a portfolio approach and have several products. Some will be more successful than others. But we want to build a company that has a portfolio of products and we think that a lab structure that does various related explorations is something that’s important.

And my co-founder Enrique Muñoz Torres and I, we’ve almost always worked in the consumer space. So we’re very interested in consumer and particular web and apps. And my background is in AI. And when we look at artificial intelligence, we see that a lot of people are working on the frontiers. Self-driving cars. Facial recognition. Et cetera. And there’s a lot of interesting and useful subcomponents in the crust in those bigger quests that can be used on everyday problems, while we’re trying to figure out can a car drive itself, can a car learn how to drive, can a computer learn how to recognize every human being on the planet. Those are incredibly important quests, incredibly useful quests. There are definitely some ethical questions that need to be addressed as we do all that, in terms of developing the right type of technology. But in that pursuit, there are certainly going to be breakthrough technologies that can help people every day.

And we think that the current state of technology is basically really excellent pattern recognition. There’s lots of patterns that people do on their phone every day, with photos, with group communication, with events, with scheduling, that are really mundane and repetitive. The state of the technology today may not be good enough for self-driving cars yet. It will get there. But it probably is good enough to start being applied to these everyday problems and start saving people a few seconds or a few minutes a day.

Elizabeth: Interesting. So you were at Google at the beginning. You obviously took part in its exponential growth. Then you went to a huge digital media company. Now you’re back in a kind of startup world. How do you compare those experiences? And which sort of environment, startup or larger, more established corporation makes you happiest, and why?

Marissa: It’s funny, but I can’t pick a stage. You know, there’s some people who love it when, they’re like it “I love it when it’s 10 people or less,” like working in a garage. And there’s some people who are like, “Oh, I just love it when you’re a couple hundred people and you’re starting to hit that inflection point of growth.” And there’s I mean who are just like, “Look, if it’s not operating at scale of thousands or tens of thousands of people and doesn’t have, you know, hundreds of millions of users, like, what’s it all for?” And I love every phase of that.

I love it when it’s small and everyone’s individual contributor. I like managing small teams. I like managing large teams. I love the impact and scale of running and being part of a big organization. I love the growth. I even love the challenges. And for Yahoo!, it was obviously was past its peak and in a different phase of the lifecycle. And I even love the challenge of that.

To me, working at companies of all phases, it’s almost always a design problem. What are the products you bring to bear? What should the structure of the company be? What you want your recruiting approach to be? How do you organize people? How do task people? How do you figure out who’s going to do what? It’s a design problem. It’s a design problem with thousands of dimensions, and just one of the most interesting design problems you can possibly think about. And to me, that’s what I love. And the design problems for every phase of a company are equally interesting and equally compelling. And so it’s hard for me to say like, oh, was there this one moment where if you could just stay in that moment forever, linger in that moment, “Thou art so fair,” I just I’ve never had that.

Elizabeth: So let me ask: When you think about the generation coming behind you, folks who are more junior in their careers, what are the things that you think about to make sure there are better opportunities available for women in technology, particularly in leadership roles?

Marissa: I think that the core way I’ve focused on is in creating opportunities. And also in opening up focused recruiting to really make sure that underrepresented groups get represented.

So two things. One of my classic examples is I ran a program at Google for 10 years that remains one of the most successful rotational management development programs in Silicon Valley, and it’s called the Associate Product Manager Program. And it really started out of necessity. We just couldn’t hire enough experienced PMs at Google, and we needed a different type of PM, one who is much more technically savvy and could really talk the talk and walk the walk with Google engineers.

So I started hiring top computer science graduates right out of undergrad and giving them a lot of responsibility. We had one APM who I think a year out of school was running a billion-dollar business line for Google. And there’s another that was basically the founding product manager for Gmail. One was the founding product manager for Google Maps. They did amazing, amazing work. And by growing that program, it meant that we had a lot of opportunities for young people. And I think, you know, if you look at that program, it has done a great job for new grads, regardless of gender, but it’s been particularly attractive for women. Possibly because as its leader, I was a woman. But, you there’s a number of really terrific women who’ve come out of there, notably Avni Shah, who now heads up Google’s education efforts and has also held large roles on Chrome and Android, and Mina Radhakrishnan, who went through the program and later became the first product manager at Uber. There’s a lot of terrific APM alumni all across the board, but particularly women who’ve really risen to leadership. And I think that literally providing the direct opportunities is helpful.

The other thing that we noted at Google and I’ve had success with throughout my career is that, we had a point early on at Google, and I think it’s been well documented, where we had made 16 offers to men, to male engineers in a row. And Larry [Page] said, when he signed the 16th one, he said, “You know, if we get to 20, I’m going to stop signing offers until you bring me women.” And that got the recruiter’s attention. And then of course, two more men got hired.

Elizabeth: And then the pressure is on.

Marissa: Right. And now the recruiters are like, well, wait, like we’re not going to be able to do our jobs in two more hires if we don’t sort this out. And they were like, “Well, look, Larry, you aren’t serious about this. You can’t be this unreasonable. It’s not like you’re going to stop hiring people into your startup that clearly needs to grow if we can’t find women.” And he’s like, “No, I’m serious about this.” And they’re like, “Well, we we’re hiring everyone we can find. We’ve hired a few.” They would they refer to me and Jen Fitzpatrick and a few other people.

And Larry just said, “How many recruiters are dedicated finding technical women?” And they said, “None.” And he said, “I have an idea. Why don’t you just put one. We’ve got, like, five technical recruiters. Why don’t you have just of the five focus on recruiting technical women, and see what happens.” And the answer is, we went and found like two more great women to hire. And then he was like, “OK, what happens if you put two women on it?” And they’re like, Oh, now we can actually find four good technical women a month. And it turns out recruiting is just linear and really depends on what you focus on.

Elizabeth: I mean, that’s about basically saying, it’s going to have to change from the top or the hiring manager at the very least in order to actually see the change, because of course, for the recruiters, they’re just trying to meet the brief.

Marissa: I would say, yes, it does come from the top, but it’s really an issue of emphasis and priority. And those are driven by the leaders of the organization. But I have found if you put an me, if you make it clear this is a point of priority and an emphasis, suddenly things get a lot easier. Because focus helps.

Elizabeth: Well, thank you very much, Marissa. I do appreciate your time and your candor and your perspective. And you’ve given me some things to think about for my own leadership. So thanks.

Marissa: All right. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth: We’ll wrap up this episode with a conversation with Jennifer Minella. She is the chairperson of (ISC)2’s board of directors, as well as the vice president of engineering and security for Carolina Advanced Digital. She’s an advocate for the growth of women in the field of cybersecurity. (ISC)2 has done research showing that women make up 20 to 25 percent of the current total of cybersecurity professionals. Jennifer tells us how the landscape is changing and what the industry needs to do to achieve better parity.

Elizabeth: So I understand that (ISC)2 is a non-profit association that trains and certifies information security professionals. Can you tell us a little more about why that’s important, and the kinds of jobs that (ISC)2 members do, and what kinds of training you all provide?

Jennifer Minella: I’m going to start with answering the first part of your question, the why that’s important. And I think it’s important because our mission is very different. Our mission is inspiring a safe and secure cyber world. And so that starts, of course, with the professionals that are working in the space, in the industry. And it’s everything from your security professionals that are doing risk and compliance and policy, the more paperwork side of things, to the people that are very hands on: network admins, system admins, even penetration testers, auditors. So it’s pretty much across the board with people that are there touching technology because cybersecurity is so pervasive these days in everything that we do. The other piece is that a certificate program, among other things, actually validates experience. And so that’s different than a lot of the other programs. So we’re not just training somebody, we’re validating that they have that knowledge.

Elizabeth: We’ve been talking in this in this episode about women in technology. So can you draw a picture for us around what it looks like for women professionals in information security and maybe partly looking at the percentage of (ISC)2 members that are women?

Jennifer: Yeah. Let me start with saying (ISC)2 has something like 150,000, more than 150,000 members across 130 to 150 different countries. But if we just kind of talk about women for a minute bite off something we can chew, the numbers aren’t terrible. We’re looking at like 20 to 25 percent of our industry population being women. And is that the ideal warm, fuzzy feeling of 50:50? No, but it’s probably a lot better than most people realize. So I think we’re trending in the right direction. We’re also kind of rethinking how we describe or define what an information security professional is, because you don’t have to have security in your title to mean that you’re a security professional. There’s so many other roles of technologists and risk and compliance professionals who have a security role, but they don’t have a security title. So we’re kind of acknowledging that at this point.

Elizabeth: There is a lot of evidence that generally speaking, women-led companies generate higher profits than those that are run by men. There are fewer of them, but they tend to generate higher profits. And women-led workplaces are certainly seen by employees as being more purpose driven, more equal, more engaging places to work. Do you think those arguments also extend to cybersecurity? So, in other words, is a diverse workplace better at maintaining cyber safety, or making sure everyone’s involved in security?

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a can of worms right there. To work backwards, there’s definitely proven value in diversity in any team composition, at any level, any organization, anywhere. So I there’s no dispute there. Now, to say that organizations that have women at the top levels of leadership outperform organizations with men at the top, I think our knee jerk reaction to jump up and go “Yay, girl power,” that’s a little bit naive. And we have to kind of peel back and say, what’s cause and what’s effect here. If there’s a female at the top, is that because the organization already had a corporate culture that was a little more geared towards diversity, a little more open and accepting, and that’s how we arrived, and therefore, that woman at the top is the effect, not the cause.

So going back down into how that ties into cybersecurity: Certainly, we’re dealing with different types of attacks and threats on a daily basis and looking at those things, I mean, it’s really about solving puzzles. And the more people you have tackling a problem and looking at it from different angles and different lenses based on their experience, whether it’s gender diversity or ethnic diversity or just a skill diversity, there’s just there’s tons of value in that. And we’ve seen that and proven that over and over again.

Elizabeth: I understand that you’re known for promoting a mindfulness-based leadership and a meditation approach in information security. And I am super interested in hearing more about that. Can you tell us about that and what that what that consists of?

Jennifer: I absolutely can. It’s something that I’m very passionate about. I’ve also found that a lot of other people in this industry have found some healthy path forward for themselves. For me, it stemmed from something as silly as having a bizarre kind of heart arrhythmia and trying to get that under control through, you know, Tàijí quán, Taichi and other modalities like that, that led me into that at an early age. But the results were just very noticeable. And I started kind of reaching out and realizing that, hey, there’s a lot of people in this industry that could benefit.

If people pay attention to the cybersecurity world, you’ll hear a lot about burnout. The average tenure of a CSO is quite short compared to other executives at that level, peer executives in other parts of the organization. Unfortunately, we have a suicide problem as well. And so people started talking about these things. And it was great that we were talking about it. And I thought, well, how do we take these things that have worked for other people and start applying some of this and just make our jobs and our experience here as humans more pleasant and more and more productive.

And definitely I think mindfulness is one of those things. I kind of feel like it’s the little black dress. It’s not a silver bullet. It doesn’t solve all the problems magically. It’s not a magic wand. But there’s definitely, I think, pieces of mindfulness that, people can take what works for them and apply it in different ways. And I think there’s some benefit in some way to anybody who’s willing to try it at any level, personal, professional, etc. And specifically in cybersecurity, you know, let’s be real. I’m a pretty happy, giggly, fun, person and very playful. But we definitely have moments where in the industry, there’s quite a bit of ego. There’s an insatiable thirst for conflict at times. And, you know, I’m all about healthy conflict. But I mean, sometimes people just stir stuff up.

And we started to look at that and say, what’s driving that behavior? Why are we interacting with each other in an unhealthy way like that? Sometimes it’s just very competitive and angry. And we start to peel that back and realize, hey, sometimes we just need to work on ourselves a little bit. And we just feel very disconnected, maybe even from ourselves. And so we brought these kinds of conversations to large industry conferences, RSA and such like, including (ISC)2’s Security Congress. So we’re starting to have the conversation. We’re starting to see things like meditation zones and areas, or yoga and yoga practices at these events. And there are several people who’ve come out and said, “Hey, you know, I’ve tried X, Y and Z, and that’s helped me.” And so we have a little bit of movement momentum in that direction.

Elizabeth: Interesting. Is there a connection in your mind between fostering mindfulness and creating a more inclusive or diverse workplace?

Jennifer: Definitely. Definitely. I think there’s a connection between mindfulness and diversity and inclusion. Gosh, we could probably write a book on this. But let’s just pick a couple things here. I’ve mentioned responding instead of reacting, just taking that moment to pause and think through something instead of shooting somebody’s idea down or getting angry. You have an opportunity there. And I think in an environment, in a culture where there’s communication, open communication, trust, a lack of fear, we have an opportunity there because people are comfortable. They’re comfortable speaking up. They’re comfortable sharing. They’re comfortable bringing ideas that might be new or outside the box and not feeling like, you know, there’s so much risk associated with that, and will they be judged.

Elizabeth: What a pleasure. And thank you so much, Jennifer.

Jennifer: I appreciate it, Elizabeth. Thank you.

Elizabeth: That’s it for this episode of Business Lab. I’m your host, Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau. I’m the CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us in print on the Web at dozens of live events each year, and now in audio form. For more information, please check out our website at technologyveview.com.

This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you’ll take a moment to rate in review us at Apple Podcasts.

Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. The producer is Wade Roush with help from Jason Sparapani and Martha Leibs. Special thanks to our guests Marissa Mayer and Jennifer Minellla. And thank you to our sponsor, (ISC)2, inspiring a safe and secure cyber world. To learn more, visit www.isc2.org. Thank you for listening.