Yahoo’s New Female CEO Isn’t a Feminist: Does it Matter?

Marissa Mayer is unquestionably a badass. But she’s wrong about feminism. (Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino)

This piece was also published on In Our Words.

Yahoo! has a new CEO. Her name is Marissa Mayer and she is 37 years old, making her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer’s accomplishments in her career are incredible and she deserves credit for them. However, to some extent, so does feminism.

Mayer was born in 1975, as the women’s movement was really starting to take off. But at the time, it was still controversial for a woman to wear pants rather than a skirt, let alone to cohabit with a boyfriend, work outside the home after marriage, and so on. However, Mayer was able to benefit from the gains of feminism: she attended college (and not just any college, but Stanford University) and became Google’s first female engineer.

On the same day that Yahoo! announced Mayer as its new CEO, Mayer and her husband announced that they are expecting a baby. In a time when pregnancy-related workplace discrimination is still very real, this is momentous. And don’t think for a moment that this happened in a vacuum.

So, does Mayer identify with feminism, given all of her achievements? Nope:

I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.

This viewpoint seems to be very common among successful women in the U.S. these days; I’ve heard it from many of my female peers at Northwestern. Yes, women can do anything men can do; yes, women should have equal rights, but do we really need to be all, like, negative about it?

First of all, there’s a certain amount of irony here. Feministing‘s Chloe writes, “Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”

Second, what Mayer said that she believes is exactly what feminism is. Feminism is the idea that women and men should have equal rights, and that women and men are essentially capable of the same things, despite the physical differences that may exist between them.

Beyond that, everything’s up for debate. Different feminists believe entirely different things. Some very radical, separatist feminists believe that women should choose to be lesbians and to associate only with other women. Most don’t believe that. Many feminists see feminism as a place to address related issues, like racism, homophobia, and class issues. Others don’t. Some feminists supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Others didn’t. Some feminists are angry and bitter (and, often, rightfully so). Others are cheerful and friendly. Some feminists hate men. Others love them, and still others could take ’em or leave ’em. Some feminists are lesbians. Others are straight, bisexual, or something else. Many feminists are women. Some are men. Others don’t identify as either men or women.

Despite this incredible diversity of opinions, lifestyles, and identities, many people, including those who support equal rights for women, insist on distilling feminism only into its most unpleasant stereotype. This is a classic strawman fallacy, and, the way I see it, it’s an attempt (if an unconscious one) to avoid discussing the real issues. It’s unfortunate that Mayer has chosen this path.

However, as Amanda Marcotte points out in her post at Slate, Mayer’s refusal to identify as a feminist might be the only option for a woman who wants to get ahead in the corporate world:

Women are correct to believe that direct confrontations with sexism result in people turning on the “complainer” instead of blaming the person who acted sexist in the first place….Taking that on just isn’t for everyone, even for a powerful woman who is unquestionably willing to suffer for the ultimate success of her corporation. Someone who would rather do what’s right than what’s profitable simply isn’t going to climb very high on that corporate ladder.

I would agree. Not everybody has to be Super Social Justice Warrior (although I’d like to see more people at least not hold the movement back). Given Mayer’s career goals, it makes sense that she chooses not to align herself with feminism, and I can’t blame her as an individual.

That said, I do wish she wouldn’t promote the same tired stereotypes about feminists having “a chip on the shoulder” and “negative energy.” Are there feminists like that? Yes. Is feminism itself like that? Depends on who you’d ask. I would say no, because I’m involved in countless feminist circles online and in real life, and our discussions there are fun, productive, and extremely connecting experiences. It’s certainly more “positive” than sitting around and pretending everything’s fine with the world when you don’t really feel like it is.

Of course, there’s a good chance that Mayer already knows all of this. It’s quite possible that her statement about feminism was entirely a political one, something she said to make sure that the men she’ll be leading don’t feel too threatened.

I can’t blame her for making that choice, but she shouldn’t have had to make it–because our culture should not be so militantly averse to serious (and, sometimes, uncomfortable) discussions.

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Fatism and Going to Extremes

Discrimination against fat people is a problem. People who are overweight are often judged to be less competent, less intelligent, and more lazy–not to mention less attractive–than people who are of a “normal” weight. They face discrimination in the workplace, and there are some jobs for which they are unlikely to ever be hired at all.

It’s only natural, then, that a movement has sprung up to combat “fatism”–and that’s awesome. What bothers me, however, is the tendency of anti-fatism activists to deny the fact that being severely overweight has negative effects on one’s health. I hear a lot of “weight has nothing to do with health” arguments these days, and this sort of denialism is simply dangerous. Obesity is a problem in America, and it does put you at increased risk for a lot of health problems, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • breast and colon cancer
  • osteoarthritis
Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, I feel like its prevention is something that should be taken seriously.

Regardless, denying these health problems does not help anyone, and admitting that being obese is unhealthy is not tantamount to justifying discrimination against obese individuals. After all, one’s health is one’s own business, and not taking care of your body shouldn’t result in being discriminated against.

It worries me when social movements respond to a problem in society (such as fatism) by taking the extreme opposite view. This happens a lot with progressives. For instance, noticing that our society has pervasive and restrictive gender roles, some claim that gender is entirely socially constructed and has no basis in biology whatsoever. (Apparently these people never noticed that men and women do actually have at least one very noticeable biological difference.) Some note that homophobia is rampant in society, so they insist that heterosexuality is actually constructed and unnatural, and that same-sex relations are the only “genuine” ones. Similarly, some people think that because discrimination against fat people exists and discrimination is wrong, therefore, there is nothing whatsoever bad or unhealthy or in any way undesirable about being overweight.

But being fat isn’t the same as being part of other marginalized groups, such as being a woman, being gay, being transgender, or being Black. No reputable scientific study has ever found that being gay or transgender is in any way unhealthy or abnormal (except, of course, in the statistical sense). No reputable scientific study has ever found that women or African Americans are inferior in any way to men or Caucasians. But our entire body of medical evidence shows that being severely overweight comes with significant hazards to your health. This is something that is simply true. Regardless of whether you think BMI is a good measure of obesity, and regardless of how easy or difficult it is for you to lose weight, being obese is unhealthy. Does this mean that discrimination against fat people is okay? Hell no. But it does mean that obesity is something that should be discouraged.

Incidentally, some of the things that anti-fatism activists consider discrimination simply aren’t. For instance, when airlines ask obese people to buy two seats, guess what–it’s not because they just don’t like obese people. It’s because if your body requires more than one seat, then you should have more than one seat–in which case, it follows that you should pay for more than one seat, because it wouldn’t be fair to give some people a second seat for free. Furthermore, it would be unfair for a person who paid for a seat to effectively receive only half a seat because the person sitting next to them clearly requires part of theirs. Does it suck to have to pay more to fly if you’re fat? Yes. But in that case, lobby for airlines to make seats bigger, not to give you permission to use half of another customer’s seat.

Also, companies that provide incentives for their employees to exercise/get down to a healthy weight/whatever are not being fatist. They’re doing two things: 1) encouraging their employees to be healthier, and 2) saving themselves money by reducing lost productivity due to medical problems and by reducing the amount they have to pay as insurance. Fact: being healthier and not obese reduces medical expenditures. Similarly, doctors who recommend that their obese patients lose weight are not being fatist. They are being doctors. I am terrified of the day when doctors are prevented from dispensing sound, evidence-based medical advice for fear of offending someone.

Regardless, it is, in fact, quite possible to discourage obesity without promoting eating disorders, obsessive dieting and exercising, and holding oneself to an impossible standard of beauty, as the mass media does. Conflating  efforts to discourage obesity with efforts to promote unhealthy behaviors or stigmatize fat people is intellectually lazy. There is, for every issue, a solution that is healthy, reasonable, and benefits the greatest possible number of people. Just because that solution is extremely hard to find doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s there, and I can guarantee that it is almost never at one extreme or the other. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.