You guys, huge news: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer fell asleep and missed a meeting with ad execs last week. This is a big deal because, well, pretty much everything Mayer does is a big deal, and nothing is better headline fodder than watching this kind of mistake happen to the woman who can apparently skip maternity leave, survive on four to six hours of sleep a night, and still manage to run a gigantic company in one of the most famously male industries in the U.S. Yup, we're talking about tech.
Basically, Mayer's a beast among us. She keeps company among the people Anne-Marie Slaughter referred to as "superwomen" in her landmark 2012 story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." That's why Mayer's recent sleepy foible, spurred by anonymous tips (perhaps from the same tipster) to The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider, is making headlines.
Here's what happened: Mayer was supposed to attend a swanky dinner with a bunch of ad execs at the Cannes advertising festival, which sounds titillating. Mayer recently fired her chief operating officer, Henrique de Castro, who did more work with advertisers, and instead of hiring a replacement, she opted to take on more of his responsibilities herself, WSJ reports. So she had to attend the meeting. But instead, Mayer fell asleep and was about 90 minutes to two hours late. Scandal!
There's no question that sleeping through the meeting was a dumb mistake; pretty much anybody would say so, and we're sure that list includes Mayer. But we're all hearing about this executive doing it because she's a woman and the narrative works. When you research "slept through meeting" and exclude Monday's deluge of results about Mayer, one of the few examples that turns up about real execs is one regarding Malaysia's former prime minister, who slept during meetings — all the time — because he had a disorder.
We don't hear about it with others not because it doesn't happen, but because either those male executives don't feel the need to tell their spurned meeting attendees what really happened (CEOs are sometimes just late for stuff!), or because other executives understand it makes sense that when you sleep four to six hours a night for two years you will potentially sleep through 90 minutes of a single, relatively unimportant meeting. CEOs blow people off when something more important comes up. It happens. A few years ago, several CEOs passed on a meeting with President Obama himself. (They blamed it on weather, but traveling from New York to DC doesn't require a plane.)
But if you're Mayer, it's a sign of your crummy leadership.
The tipster who talked to Business Insider gave a detailed account of what he or she believed Mayer's failings were at the conference:
...She went to WPP's Stream conference, where she was grilled by Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. After giving another canned presentation, Sorrell hammered her. First he asked her what it would take for her to return an email. When she responded she returns every email, he stated that she hadn't returned his, that Sheryl Sandberg returns his instantly and should he take it personally that she doesn't. Then he asked her what her relationship with Dan Loeb was. When she responded "very good," Sorrell chimed in, "That's not what Dan tells me." This is front of every key WPP executive and many of her peers.
Let's drill down on that for a minute. It's not OK for executives to give canned presentations (this happens...well...almost every time), yet it's fine for an executive to be rudely called out in a conference setting by a peer? And if Sheryl Sandberg — who, by the way, is a COO, not a CEO — returns my emails, that means Silicon Valley's other lady-leader automatically should too, right?
Among the Fortune 1000 companies, just 50 are helmed by women. Women are fired more often than male CEOs. And they're more likely to take the leadership of a company in a time of crisis, hence the term "glass cliff." In that environment, it still makes sense for Mayer to take some heat from the meeting attendees she flaked on, but little sense for WSJ and Business Insider to pick up an anonymous tip from perhaps a single person who likely has it out for her.