Dear Marissa

by Nicole Sanchez & Amanda Gelender on March 10th, 2015

Photo of Marissa Mayer at the Fortune Most Power Women event.

Photo CC-BY Fortune Live Media.

We haven’t met, but our firm is asked about you in almost every interview we do about diversity in tech. When asked how you have risen through the ranks of tech and the rest of us haven’t, our answer is usually “Yes, a few women have succeeded, but holding them up as a model for all of us is unrealistic at best, dangerous at worst.”

You stated last week: “There are probably industries where gender is more of an issue, but our industry is not one where I think that’s relevant.”

After hearing your remarks, we may just stick with the “dangerous” part of our answer. Denying gender’s relevance is active erasure. It is incorrect, harmful, and your experience does not reflect the people who have experienced gender “mattering.”

But a cis white woman asserting gender to be a non-issue in tech is the perfect spokesperson to prop up a decaying belief in tech’s meritocracy. Where you live and work, you may actually be getting thanked for your statement. But let’s be clear: Kudos will come from people, like yourself, whose status is threatened by the idea that a person’s identity might actually matter, especially as a predictor of success.

How gender bias, discrimination, and harassment play out in the workplace has been studied and written about far more thoroughly and eloquently than we can in this short piece. If you only read one study on this, make it “Double Jeopardy,” released this year by UC Hastings.  Some highlights in the tech field: 100% of the women of color reported experiencing gender bias. 77% of black women (and 66% of all women) reported having to prove themselves over and over again. The list of barriers as a result of gender is extensive and exhausting.

Take also the impact of gender discrimination for members of the tech community who identify as trans or gender non-conforming. Two of our favorite pieces on the topic come from Dr. Kortney Ziegler and Jessica Lachenal which outline many of the challenges these tech workers face. Nationally, 90% of trans employees have experienced some type of harassment on the job. 47% of trans workers have experienced adverse effects of the job (including being fired, denied jobs, or being passed over for promotion). 26% of trans employees have been fired for being trans (See this study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force). Tech is overwhelmingly cis-dominated, and we cannot ignore the unique and debilitating ways in which the tech industry perpetuates transphobic discrimination, pushing out talent from the trans and gender non-conforming community.

For those of us who have worked on issues of diversity for a long time, your statements, Marissa, are part of a recognizable pattern. Like many before you, you must believe the myth that “gender is a non-issue” with all your heart; the integrity of your personal narrative depends on it. Despite the fact that there are reams of data proving you incorrect, there is simply too much on the line for you to wrestle with the truth. The irony here is that you are a leader in a field that is “data-driven.”

But we get it. As Upton Sinclair famously wrote “It is difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.”

Let’s look at the most basic data of all: representation. Here is a snapshot of the tech landscape: Women comprised 26% of the computing workforce in 2013 (3% Black women, 5% Asian women, 2% Latina women). 11% of venture capital goes to women-owned businesses and 4.2% of VCs are women. While women earn 57% of all bachelor degrees, they only represent 12% of computer science degrees. Even the company you lead, Yahoo!, is only 37% women.

With all of this data — presented both anecdotally and via rigorous research — how much longer can we explain away (or in your case, dismiss) the glaring institutional gender inequities that plague the tech field? What have you to say about race, physical ability, age, and a myriad other attributes that cause people to remain on the sidelines of tech? How much talent are you willing to overlook in an effort to hold on to your myths?

The good news is that the tech diversity movement is thriving. We are gaining traction as more people refuse to accept the prevailing paradigm of tech as a white, cis boys club. While we still have a great deal of work to do, change is finally afoot in an industry that has been plagued by exclusion since its inception. But our progress is stalled when prominent tech leaders such as yourself deny the realities of gender discrimination and harassment in the tech field.

To be clear: We do not have time to waste debating the existence of systemic inequity. Proof of this inequity is offered in every study we named and dozens more. It is offered in the daily, lived experiences of marginalized people across our field.

Marissa, the price we pay as you amplify this myth is too high. In short: Change your tune or pass the mic.


Amanda Gelender & Nicole Sanchez
Vaya Consulting