Yahoo’s new CEO is noteworthy for two reasons. First off, the company’s new leader holds a computer science degree. And secondly, she’s a woman.
At 37, Marissa Mayer has already done many things right. When she graduated from Stanford University with her computer science degree, she went to work for Google, becoming employee No. 20 and its first female engineer. The former vice president of search and user experience gained a reputation for developing Google’s famed user experience, Gmail, and other products, and in her 13 years with the company has amassed a wealth of experience about consumer Internet businesses and search.
Mayer’s surprise hiring as Yahoo’s CEO this week has sent shock waves rippling through the Silicon Valley. But let’s hope the news also makes its way to the classrooms of high schools and universities around the world, where young girls might be planning their futures. Seeing a computer scientist—and a young and female computer scientist at that—in such a high-profile position could do more for the cause of attracting more girls to the field than countless government or private initiatives or entreaties by parents, teachers, and industry leaders.
There’s much power in visualization—and seeing someone of the same gender in a high position conveys in a concrete way that such things are definitely possible. Can you say role model? Even girls without anyone in their cheering section as they consider careers in computing can look at Mayer and be convinced that succeeding in the field can be done.
There’s a long list of women who’ve made major contributions to computing—dating back to Frances Allen, Betty Jean Bartik, Grace Hopper, Jean Sammet, and others in the days of the ENIAC and early programming. And there any many organizations—including the Anita Borg Institute and Women in Engineering—pushing to increase female representation in the field.
This year’s Fortune 500 list included 18 women CEOs, six more than in 2011. Among them were former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, CEO of 10th-ranked Hewlett-Packard; Ginny Rometty, CEO of 19th-ranked IBM; and Ursula Burns, CEO of 128th-ranked Xerox.
However, the nonprofit organization Catalyst found that women made no significant gains in 2011 and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago. Catalyst found that women typically use the same career-advancement strategies as men, however don’t receive the same payoff. Female MBA graduates are often started at lower salaries than their male counterparts and disadvantaged by talent management systems that unintentionally use gender-based stereotyping in selecting leaders.
Recent statistics from the US National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, and Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System show that women like Mayer remain a definite minority. There are four times as many men working as science and engineering managers as there are women. The situation is even worse for engineering managers, where men outnumber women by 125,000 to 8,000. In medical and health services, however, there are more than twice as many female managers than male managers.
In a recent survey of women in computing by IEEE and IEEE Computer Society, work-life balance is a major concern. Mayer might also serve as a role model on that front too, considering that she is recently married and expecting her first child.