Brandspeak: Women of Tech, Ignite!


Marissa Mayer Yahoo in Variety

The following is a guest post by Diane Brady, a New York-based business journalist, author, media strategist and CEO of dB Omnimedia:

What a week for news about the top women of tech.

First, Variety puts Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in crucifixion pose on its cover, with a story that casts her as something more akin to the devil.

Then Elizabeth Holmes, the beleaguered wunderkind behind Theranos, grabs global headlines after Forbes downgrades her net worth from $4.5 billion to zero. That’s right: zero. A woman hailed as the “next Steve Jobs” last season is suddenly worth less than the pin she’d use to prick blood from your fingertip.

Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made news this week after Huffington Post Executive Editor Emily Peck discovered her penchant for wearing “towering high heels.” Never mind that Peck’s boss, Arianna Huffington, has been known to rock a pair of stilettos. On Sandberg’s feet, they illustrate the “hypocrisy” of tech’s casual dress code.

Then again, Peck has a point: Being covered as a woman of Silicon Valley sucks. Like a rare species spotted in the wild, women who make it in the land of boy billionaires are instant media stars—praised as pioneers on magazine covers, feted as role models at the White House, treated as pundits on the speaking circuit and lauded for their uncanny fashion sense. (Practicality aside, Sandberg has great taste in shoes.)

This is the face of 21st-century female empowerment, proof that girls can be geeks and still snag a Vogue feature or guy like A-Rod. (23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki’s relationship with the Yankees star is getting her more headlines these days than the renaissance of her DNA testing giant.)

But tech goddesses rarely get to bask in media hype for too long. Something inevitably knocks them off the perch. Maybe they talk too much or take too little maternity leave. Maybe they rise too fast and promise too much. Maybe they step into a mess, like HP’s Meg Whitman, and take too long to turn it around. Maybe it just looked like a mess.

Although Mayer came to Yahoo four years ago as it was reeling amid falling revenue and a nasty board battle, Variety asserts that “she has had the luxury of running one of the world’s most recognized internet brands, with a surging digital ad market, a cooperative board, a truckload of cash and 1 billion monthly visitors.” Mayer may be posed as Jesus Christ in the illustrations, but Variety makes it clear she brought this all on herself.

Then there’s Elizabeth Holmes. No one should diminish the seriousness of the allegations against her blood testing startup Theranos, which faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations over its core technology and practices. Among other things, an article in The Wall Street Journal last fall showed a company struggling to live up to its own hype and reach, with 240 tests spanning cholesterol to cancer. But a key source of that hype was media coverage that cast Holmes as a visionary Stanford dropout who’d designed time machines at seven, read Moby Dick by nine, and set out to revolutionize blood testing because she couldn’t stand needles.

Here was the Valley Girl archetype we’d been craving: a woman who combined the beatnik chic and brilliance of a Steve Jobs with the blonde hair and baritone authority of a Martha Stewart. It’s a lot to live up to and Holmes looked ill-prepared as the storyline turned ugly, avoiding WSJ investigative reporter John Carreyrou then telling Today Show interviewer Maria Shriver that the fallout from his reporting had made her a “better person” and “better leader.”

The debate now is whether Holmes will have a company to lead. The media prognosis for Mayer’s prospects at the helm of Yahoo look pretty dim, but the board doesn’t seem to be taking its cues from headlines. So where’s a girl supposed to go for inspiration these days?

Maybe just kick off those heels and turn to the fictionalized Silicon Valley on HBO, a land with so few women that the only characters to mock are men.

Diane Brady is a New York-based business journalist, author, media strategist and CEO of dB Omnimedia.