Marissa Mayer’s apology letter says more about our failings than it does about hers

Following a massive Yahoo security breach, CEO Marissa Mayer gave up her annual bonus and equity. Following a sprint of time riddled with driver murders, labor disputes, sexual harassment allegations and a backseat temper tantrum, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick gave up his 40-year streak of not growing up.

The CEO of a company should certainly face consequences for one of the largest security breaches in internet history that exposed the data of at least 500 million users under his or her watch. But therein lies a key difference — Mayer both apologized and made the grand gesture of giving up money for an act that she wasn't directly responsible for. Kalanick, who has overseen a disastrous few months at Uber, was driven to a public apology only after a damning video of him leaked.

A double standard

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When ProPublica revealed that advertisers on Facebook could target users based on race, Mark Zuckerberg didn't forego any bonuses. In fact, he didn't even issue a public apology assuming responsibility for a civil rights violation on his platform. When Slack was hacked in 2015, Stewart Butterfield wasn't expected to publicly punish himself. When over a million Google accounts were infected with malware, Sundar Pichai didn't forego an annual bonus or publish a Tumblr apology.

Women leaders shoulder a perceptible double standard in Silicon Valley. Because there are fewer female CEOs in tech, they must work under "heightened visibility," as this Commonwealth Secretariat study notes: "When women become one of the few that have reached the top, they will be watched closer, and subjected to greater scrutiny resulting in risk aversion."

And women in general statistically apologize more than men — not because they slip up more, but because they have a lower threshold for what necessitates an apology.

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Higher expectations

"Men aren't actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don't want to take responsibility for their actions," said study researcher Karina Schumann, a then doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, according to LiveScience. "It seems to be that when they think they've done something wrong, they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they've done something wrong. It's just that they think they've done fewer things wrong."

Mayer isn't blameless in Yahoo's massive failures. But she has thrown herself on a sword in a way no male CEO has, or would, consider in her place. For an industry that loves to paint itself as a meritocratic ensemble, sexism still rears its head at the highest levels of power. 

Imagine Mayer rolling up to work in jeans and a zipped up hoodie, absent of a public apology, after her company came under fire for racial or gender discrimination or spying on its users.