A Critical Mass

October 8, 2012The challenges women face in the workplace—gender stereotypes, unintended biases, sexism, and more—can’t be solved by women alone. That’s why Catalyst created MARC: Men Advocating Real Change.

MARC is an online community created for men committed to achieving equality in the workplace. MARC empowers men to engage in candid conversations about gender, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through action. Since MARC’s launch in March 2012, more than 400 people have become members of the site and we have published more than 50 blog posts from leading experts on gender equality from around the world.

MARC currently features two blogs. The MARC Blog is an insightful source of thought-provoking ideas, discussion-starters and commentary, while the Ask a Woman Blog gives men a chance to ask a panel of women professionals anything they want to know regarding workplace equality—no topic is out of bounds.

MARC’s community managers, Mike Otterman and Jeanine Prime, PhD, recently received a question via the Ask a Woman Blog asking why Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer continues to attract so much press attention. I thought the response, penned by The White House Project’s founder and president emeritus Marie C. Wilson, was so impactful that I wanted to share it with readers of Catalyzing. Below is the question asked by a MARC member, plus Marie’s thoughtful reply.


Question from MARC member: Why do you think that there is so much press attention given to Marissa Mayer’s ascension to CEO of Yahoo? It is clear that she is an extremely talented individual who has the ability and drive to push Yahoo forward in its next chapter. I really don’t recall this level of attention during the announcement of the prior CEO.

Marie C. Wilson responds:

Two words: numbers matter.

Even the extremely talented Marissa Mayer is not immune from the press scrutiny that all outsiders receive when so few of us occupy positions of power. Only 20 women head Fortune 500 companies; Mayer is the 20th. The scrutiny is even more intense because she got the job without having been a CEO previously, which is highly unusual, and because she announced her pregnancy. As a result, we hear constantly about her intention to return to work within a short time of delivering—and we also hear complaints that she’s setting a “bad example” for other mothers.

When we watch an able woman like Marissa Mayer being subjected to this level of scrutiny, we are again reminded of how much attention the press pays to gender—not just when a woman gets a high-level job, but forever after. How often have our last three U.S. secretaries of state (Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Rodham Clinton) read comments in the news about their appearances rather than their policies? Americans aren’t alone here: Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also receive far too much gendered attention.

One of our earliest studies at The White House Project examined how the U.S. press tends to cover political races involving just one woman. We dubbed it our “hair, hemlines and husband” study. If there is only one woman in a race, press coverage focuses heavily on her hair, her clothes, her love life—any topic closely associated with her gender. The presence of two women in a single race invites either direct physical comparisons or “catfight” references. It’s only when three women are competing in a single race—which is still a rarity—that each woman is assessed as a candidate first.

We need to look more closely at the number of women who hold top jobs in the first place as a determining factor in how women in power are viewed and treated. Only recently have we begun to understand that we need a critical mass (usually considered one third of the members of any group) for women and other “outsiders” to be seen as unexceptional. A trailblazing Catalyst study defined “three” as the turning point for the “normalization” of women on boards.

The good news is that the intense press scrutiny of Marissa Mayer provides an opportunity to remind Americans that women still don’t lead alongside men in comparable numbers, even though most people assume we do. Only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and Marissa Mayer is one of them. That is a long way from fair.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.