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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Marissa Mayer Can’t Do It Alone

Marissa Mayer can’t do this all by herself.

It’s simply much too difficult to expect one person to carry all that responsibility and juggle all those demands. And she will most certainly fail if we don’t change our expectations of her.

Oh, I’m not talking about being the CEO of Yahoo! And I’m not talking about being pregnant on the job or raising her son as a working mom. I’m talking about being our only role model for technical women in tech.

This is not to say that Mayer doesn’t deserve praise. Her resume includes two degrees from Stanford University, a number of impressive board appointments, and a 13-year track record building beloved products at Google. Her success as both a software engineer and a business executive has earned her many accolades; she is a four-time honoree of Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and Glamour Magazine named her Woman of the Year in 2009.

But the media’s enthusiasm for Mayer as the mascot for women in tech ignores the truth: she is just one woman. She is one hell of a smart and accomplished woman, but she’s not a superhero. But in a society hungry for examples of progress for women in STEM industries, Mayer’s public profile makes her an easy target for glorification.

Nearly every female computer scientist I’ve interviewed in the past year tells me she can only think of one role model. “I look up to Marissa Mayer because she has a visible role,” explained computer science graduate student Kathy Cooper in an interview in January 2012. “She is extremely intelligent and respected by so many people.”

The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller put it best when describing the environment in which Mayer has risen to cult celebrity status: “There remain distressingly few women among Silicon Valley engineers, startup entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and computer science and engineering majors.” The increase in the number of women in the tech industry belies the fact that very few women in tech are actually technical, so it’s no surprise that an engineer like Mayer would get a lot of attention.

But like many other young women in computer science who bristle at being described as a “female engineer”, Mayer seems to shy away from titles that emphasize her femininity. In a 2012 interview with CNN, she joked: “People ask me all the time, 'What is it like to be a woman at Google?' I'm not a woman at Google; I'm a geek at Google.” Despite her commitment to equal rights and the abilities of women, she has even said, “I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist.”

Certainly, Marissa Mayer is not the only woman in tech. Yes, women are still under-represented in computer science, but lamenting the status of the industry shouldn’t mean we ignore the women who have already made great strides in the industry. If you’re looking for a female role model in a software engineering role, there are many, many, many examples to choose from.

Just as women aren’t all the same, no one woman can represent an entire gender. Mayer is clearly phenomenal, but clinging to her a symbol of women in tech isn’t fair to her—nor to the rest of us. It’s precarious to place the fate of an entire demographic movement on the performance of one woman, no matter how talented she is.

So, cool it on the Marissa Mayer adoration. Yes, she’s an awesome example of a woman who wrote code and is now kicking ass in board rooms across America. But there are lots of talented technical women out there, and we’ll benefit from having them tell their stories, too.

Revolutionizing the demographics of an industry is a job too big for one woman. Mayer has enough on her plate as it is, without the unreasonable expectations of being not just literal mother to her child, but a symbolic mother to an entire generation of young women.

So let’s look beyond her as our one, solitary, iconic role model—and then, we can collectively inspire the next generation to follow not just in Mayer’s footsteps, but in the footsteps of the whole range of women in tech who’ve came before us.

Photo courtesy of Giorgio Montersino.