Is There A Double Standard When Female CEOs In Tech Stumble? : All Tech Considered Male CEOs fail all the time, but when someone like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer or Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes falls short of expectations it can feed stereotypes about women being unfit for leadership.
NPR logo

Is There A Double Standard When Female CEOs In Tech Stumble?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is There A Double Standard When Female CEOs In Tech Stumble?

Is There A Double Standard When Female CEOs In Tech Stumble?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Two of the highest profile women in tech have had a tough year. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, saw her company sold to Verizon. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the experimental blood testing company Theranos, was banned from her own lab by regulators for two years. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at what it means for such high-profile women in tech to fail.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There is a long list of male company founders and CEOs who have failed miserably. There was John Sculley, the former Apple CEO who famously fired Steve Jobs. Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of Enron, was indicted for securities fraud - or someone like Angelo Mozilo, the chair of Countrywide Financial, who is widely associated with helping bring on the housing crisis.

MARIANNE COOPER: There are so many other male leaders that his failure doesn't really create expectations about other men's leadership capacities or capabilities.

SYDELL: Marianne Cooper's a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Because there are so few women CEOs, especially in tech, Cooper says when a Marissa Mayer or Elizabeth Holmes fails, it can feed stereotypes.

COOPER: It can actually serve to reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren't quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions.

SYDELL: Though Mayer and Holmes have very different stories, if you read the comments below articles online, they are both the targets of stinging sexism. A recent post on NPR's site said of Mayer's failure, simply evidence that women cannot lead. A post on news comment site Reddit called both women part of the feminist industrial complex that promotes unqualified women.

As young, attractive, rising stars, Mayer and Holmes became media darlings. Holmes was fashioned as a great female visionary of the tech world, like in this report from "CBS This Morning."


NORAH O'DONNELL: A health care pioneer is being compared to visionaries like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. This morning Elizabeth Holmes is part of the new "Time 100" list just out.

SYDELL: Mayer became a symbol of a woman CEO who could juggle giving birth to twins and her job. Here she is on the "Today" show.


MARISSA MAYER: Well, I've been a mom now for about four and a half months, and I've been CEO for seven months. And I would say that I wouldn't have missed a minute of either experience.

SYDELL: Many women executives in the tech world still prefer to see Mayer as a role model. Natala Menezes has been an executive at Amazon, Microsoft and Google and is currently a general manager at the marketing and analytics firm Localytics.

NATALA MENEZES: I think certainly Marissa going in as a CEO who is having a child has shown that you can do both of those things at once. And just having a woman be in that role is normalizing for the rest of us.

SYDELL: Minnie Ingersoll, the COO and co-founder of Shift, a startup that helps people sell used cars online, likes to see women shoot for the stars.

MINNIE INGERSOLL: One message for young women is, one, that it's OK to take a big risk and to fail. And I think there's something actually for me personally that I find almost inspiring in someone who is willing to take that risk.

SYDELL: But she doesn't think that Mayer and Holmes have much in common.

INGERSOLL: Marissa and Elizabeth are both blond women, but other than that, I see what is going on in their careers very differently.

SYDELL: Though being young and blonde may have something to do with the media's fascination with these women because there are others succeeding as leaders in tech. Ursula Burns runs Xerox. Meg Whitman now runs HP Enterprise and is the former CEO of eBay. She helped turn the company into a giant of online commerce. Ginni Rometty is the CEO of IBM.

Menezes and Ingersoll hope that these successes will make it easier for women to succeed and dream so big that they can afford to fail as often as men do. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.