There has been much uproar surrounding Marissa Mayer's new photo spread -- and, oh yeah, 3,000 word profile -- in Vogue's September issue. The photograph, which shows the Yahoo CEO wearing a fitted blue dress and reclining rather seductively on a white lounger, her long blonde hair spread out overhead, makes the point not once, but twice (she's also photographed holding an iPad bearing a close-up of her own face) that appearance matters for women -- and more than a little. Because by far, what everyone's talking about when they talk about Marissa Mayer in Vogue isn't the content of that story, but the content of that photo: the dress, the makeup, the body, the look.
We know that appearance matters in business and in life. And that there's no reason a woman can't be both brilliant and beautiful, or both serious and sexy. She can be, and very often is, and a tight blue dress doesn't make Mayer any more or less fascinating a subject. We also know that Vogue is a fashion magazine, and so it makes sense that Mayer -- a self-described lover of fashion, particularly Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, according to the article -- might be photographed wearing a beautiful outfit (by Michael Kors, in this case).
But because the photo makes Mayer's appearance such a point of the article -- there's also a sidebar titled "What Would Marissa Mayer Wear? A Workweek Guide to Office Dressing" -- it serves to steer the conversation not to what she says, but how she looks. Although some have argued the photo is empowering -- an image of a woman at the top of her game, proof positive that even "geeks" can be hot -- they're still talking about what she looks like. Of course geeks can be hot. The problem is that the "geek" part, the part to which her business success is ostensibly credited, becomes secondary in the shadow of such blatant physicality. And that's a shame.
Still, what's perhaps most regrettable about Mayer's sexed-up spread is that it's a missed opportunity for her to be seen as a realistic role model. The CEO has already done her part to alienate herself from the everyday working woman, making a big deal about taking an abbreviated maternity leave and issuing a controversial ban on her employees working from home. Modern women in the workplace face considerable challenges: They work more but earn less than men. They have difficulty finding mentors. They are less likely than men to speak up for what they want at work. And they're desperately seeking women they can look up to and emulate. Mayer, as seen here in all her airbrushed glory, is not that. By allowing the magazine to play up her assets in such an undeniably -- and distractingly -- physical way, she lost the opportunity to make the case for herself, and for other women, that she is far more than a pretty woman in a blue dress. And that while how women look matters, what they say should matter so much more.