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What Marissa Mayer Wears in Vogue Doesn’t Matter

Oh, I hate to be so predictable as to write anything about Marissa Mayer, but I simply can’t stop myself this time.

So, Mayer was featured in Vogue, and a particular photo of her laid out on a chaise lounge in a form-fitting dress and stilettos has provoked the angry people that care about such things. Apparently none more so than some guy named Steve Cody who writes for Inc.

Cody’s Inc article starts by comparing Mayer to Martha Stewart (convicted criminal) and Paula Deen (now largely assumed to be a racist) and just goes downhill from there. In rapid succession he mocks her choice to wear expensive clothes, her ‘faux geekiness’ (but also her valley girl speak), calls her a micromanager, and overall is so unconsciously chauvinistic that I want to start a fund to send him to therapy to address whatever underlying issues he’s clearly suffering from.

Why all the fuss? Ostensibly it’s because Mayer is making a dangerous mistake. The “‘Look at me!’ mistake”:

”The problem with Mayer’s celebrity CEO brand is that it has become too closely aligned with Yahoo’s.”

“Avoid the temptation to pursue Ms. Mayer’s brand of hagiographic personal publicity”

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Americans love to build up, and then tear down, an icon.”

“Her outsize Vogue spread, a hyper-inflated homage to a self-proclaimed geeky-glamour-queen-Valley-Girl, should be a fat warning to any entrepreneur thinking of following in Mayer’s Prada-clad footsteps.”

I mean seriously guys, he has a point. You would never catch Richard Branson curating a personality cult and appearing in a Vogue spread…oh, wait. Well, how about Elon Musk, or David Karp? Yeah, exactly.

Get Real

Can we please just cut the crap and acknowledge that we apply very different (albeit unspoken) rules to females in positions of power? And that asserting otherwise only shows others how deeply un-aware one is to one’s own biases (ahem, Mr. Cody)?

The argument advanced by the Codys of the world, if dissected and internalized, basically tells us this:

“Ladies, you better swear off that Michael Kors before your empire crumbles! Your success is already hanging by a thread because you have ovaries, so don’t further anger the business gods by putting on that Chanel lipstick! Basically you’re just lucky to even be here, so make sure you don’t draw attention to yourself or any success that you’ve had, which is probably attributable to your colleagues anyway.”

Tabloid Business Writing

But this is a complicated message, because it is not consistently applied. Women who seem to truly dispense with vanity in the workplace are not hailed as the perfect role models we might expect. In many cases, these women are criticized (again, often via subtext) as not pretty enough. One need look no further than many things written or said about Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Angela Merkel, or basically everything Rush Limbaugh has ever said about any public figure who identifies as a feminist. And there is also a lot of ridicule directed at women who are suspected of trying to become pretty (for example through plastic surgery). The real societal moral seems to be: be pretty, but don’t ever try to be pretty, or assume that you’re pretty, or enjoy that you’re pretty, or flaunt that you’re pretty, or use the fact that you’re pretty to benefit yourself, because BAD things will happen to you!

But what really, truly annoys me about the response to Marisa Mayer’s photo spread in a magazine specifically devoted to fashion (not business), is that it reveals that the knee-jerk reaction to even the most boring controversy involving a woman in business defaults to the lowest form of discourse. Ostensibly serious business writers have reverted to Marie Antoinette references and paternalistic tut-tutting. Disappointing, but also pathetically out of touch. Because the real story about women in business seems to be playing out utterly devoid of the same commentators’ outrage and attention.

Back In the Real World…

Elsewhere, in the land of things that matter, fascinating and frustrating data about the differences in variable compensation awarded to male versus female managers was released. This analysis was based on the 2013 XpertHR National Management Salary Survey, and shows a clear gender gap in bonus payments between men and women at the same level:

“The data, published annually by CMI (Chartered Management Institute) and salary specialists XpertHR, reveals male managers earned average bonuses twice as big as those of their female counterparts over the last 12 months – £6,442 compared to £3,029 – on top of average basic salaries almost 25 per cent bigger (£38,169 compared to £29,667). Analysis of the National Management Salary Survey, which includes data from more than 43,000 UK workers, shows men stand to earn over £141,500 more in bonuses than women doing the same role over the course of a working lifetime.

Both the gender bonus and gender pay gaps are more pronounced at senior levels. At £36,270, female directors’ bonuses are dwarfed by the average amount taken home by male directors in the last year – £63,700. Even without taking bonuses into account, the data shows that the gender pay gap increases with each rung of the management ladder. At entry level women are faring better, earning £989 more than men on average, but by middle-management they receive £1,760 less than men and at director level the gap widens to £15,561 (an average basic salary of £140,586 for men and £125,025 for women).”

Missing the Big Story

I know, I know; a lot of people would have us believe that the pay gap between genders either doesn’t exist, or continues only because us silly women-folk choose to go into professions like teaching, nursing and administrative careers, which are (total coincidence alert!), traditionally compensated at lower levels. After all, there are annually now more female college graduates than male, and shit, Yahoo even hired a pregnant female CEO!!! And yet, these inequalities persist. The people who ignore these real issues to instead focus on what one of the (very) few female CEOs in the U.S. chose to wear at a single Vogue photo-shoot…well, they’re revealing their inability to see the forest for the pretty tinsel in the trees.

Image credit: Julian Povey via Flickr Creative Commons

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. ChristopherinHR #

    Love it: if looked that good I’d stretch out too wearing nice threads… Cut the crap and let’s let Marissa be a women with taste and a CEO: last time I checked no one said that was illegal. Grow up boys…

    August 26, 2013
  2. As long as we are discussing what women are wearing we are barking up the wrong tree.
    Very much liked your line of argumentation.

    September 1, 2013
  3. I think it’s just as much a mistake to dismiss these criticisms over the Vogue sheet as you feel it is for others to dismiss the sources of pay inequalities. Ultimately I think any business person, male or female, who wants to be taken seriously shouldn’t pose like she did in Vogue.

    December 7, 2013

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