Lucy Kellaway: Focus on women bosses not necessarily sexist

What may look like gender bias in relation to Yahoo chief Mayer is understandable

Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer: 4,200 articles were published in English about her last year. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In 1985, when I became a journalist, I was invited to join a group of female colleagues who met regularly to discuss how rotten it was being a woman at work. I turned up once but never again: I was irritated by the complaining and couldn’t help noticing the people who were doing the most of it were the least good at their jobs. If you’re not great at what you do, I thought, you shouldn’t blame it on your sex.

In 30 years I have progressed a bit in my views. Whether people are good at their jobs and whether they are suffering from gender bias are different questions. Where there is sexism, making a fuss – though boring for both the person doing the complaining and for the person listening – is important. If nothing is said, nothing changes.

Gender victimisation

Financial Times readers, it seems, have not progressed so much. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer last week complained to the Financial Times that the media had it in for her because she was a woman – and FT readers responded as I did all those years ago. One wrote: "You are incompetent – it's as simple as that, Mayer. Stop trying to hide behind 'gender' victimisation nonsense, please."

A couple of hundred posted similar comments. She had done a rubbish job as Yahoo chief, sexism had nothing to do with it.


Their vehemence makes me smell a rat. Mayer may have done a poor job. But are they right that there has been no sexism in the reporting? And how does one measure it?

Mayer complained at how the media is obsessed with women's clothes, citing Hillary Clinton and her pantsuits. This is true, but the attire gender gap is closing – last week the FT ran an entire article on Boris Johnson's backpack.

Either way, I’m not sure it’s such a big deal. I’m interested in what women (and men) wear, and so long as pantsuits are not an alternative to policies, I see little harm in it.

Bondage sandals

In any case, Mayer can't really protest at press intrusion into her wardrobe, given the photo of her in Vogue a couple of years ago lying upside down on an uncomfortable bit of garden furniture in skin-tight blue sheath and bondage sandals, holding an iPad reflecting an image of herself.

If I were chief executive, I wouldn’t have posed like that in a million years, but then that’s because upside down and thus clad I would not have looked a pretty sight. Mayer, on the other hand, looked a very pretty sight, and did the world a favour by proving you can be gorgeous, blonde, love clothes and run a big company in male-dominated IT.

Equally, people have cried sexism at the endless articles about her as a mother. From the time she was appointed when pregnant, we have watched her through two pregnancies, tutted at the scant maternity leave, marvelled at the on-site nursery and nannies and ogled endless photos of the cute baby girls in the office.

By contrast no one writes about the children of Yahoo founders David Filo and Jerry Yang – their Wikipedia pages don't even reveal that they have any. This looks like gender bias, but again it is understandable. We don't have many female chief executives with babies, and so I'm grateful to Mayer for showing me how she does it.

Parenting judged

The only bad things are the opinions expressed over whether she is a good mother. Such judgment is no longer for women only – Mark Zuckerberg has posted almost as many pictures of his offspring online as has Mayer – only he is judged a wonderful father on the basis of having taken his baby for a jab, while she is a bad mother because she works too hard.

There is an even more important bias – sheer volume of stories. Last year 4,200 articles were printed in English about her, more than four times as many than were about her opposite number at AOL, Tim Armstrong (also bought by Verizon last year) – which is particularly remarkable given how hard he tried to be newsworthy via a string of gaffes.

We are simply more interested in women chief executives and we will go on being more interested until there are more of them. This is not an advantage – the pressure is bad enough anyway without everyone reporting on your every move.

It would be enough to make one do a Mayer, spend $500,000 of company money on private security guards – and generate yet another adverse story. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)