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Let’s Stop Talking About Marissa Mayer’s Gender for a Minute

Key Speakers At 2015 The Fortune Global ForumKey Speakers At 2015 The Fortune Global Forum
Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo, listens during the 2015 Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Nov. 3, 2015.Photograph by David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal ran an article this week entitled “Female CEOs, Still a Rarity, Face Extra Pressures.” The focus was mainly on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who “embodies the particular challenge of being female and in charge.”

While there is some truth to that general narrative, in Mayer’s case, it’s a mischaracterization.

That’s not to say that female leaders never face additional scrutiny, just not here. If Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo is to be a cautionary tale, then it’s about up-and-comers succumbing to the lure of the limelight before they have the skill and experience to shine in it. Like the proverbial metaphor of moths attracted to flame, they usually end up getting burned.

From the moment she threw her hat into the ring to the day Yahoo announced its sale to Verizon for just $4.8 billion, everything that took place over that four-year period was Mayer’s doing. Nobody had to coax the aggressive executive to the edge of the proverbial “glass cliff.” And she was never shy of the spotlight. On the contrary, she reveled in it.

Indeed, when Yahoo announced its CEO choice, some (myself included) questioned whether Mayer’s rock star reputation was indeed more “sizzle than substance.” While she held key executive roles in 13 years at Google, she was never promoted beyond the vice president level. More important, her experience was limited to one company in a dominant market position.

Mayer’s leadership skills had never been tested under the harsh realities of a has-been company with single-digit market share and a demoralized culture. That lack of experience was not present in similarly challenging turnarounds that Jobs, Mark Hurd and Lou Gerstner successfully executed at Apple, HP and IBM.

Meanwhile, Mayer’s reportedly low-EQ management style and high-profile PR persona did not stem from her tenure at Yahoo, but from her earlier time at Google. In a fascinating piece about Mayer’s sort of Jekyll and Hyde reputation, Business Insider provided a somewhat less flattering perspective on the otherwise highly-regarded executive:

The other view, more common amongst long-time Googlers, is that Mayer is a publicity-craving, lucky early Googler, whose public persona outstripped her actual authority and power at the company, where she was once a rising star—thanks to a bullying managerial style—but had become marginalized over the past couple of years.

As a leader, Mayer is now battletested – stronger for having survived such a torturous experience. If anything, Yahoo’s board looks irresponsible for rolling the dice on a relatively junior executive, talented as she was. And nobody would question that she gave it her all. She’s a far more capable CEO today than she was when she took the job.

The WSJ story implies that female CEOs who fail in a turnaround may have a tough time landing on their feet. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it shouldn’t be. Turnarounds are extremely challenging and successful ones rare, even among experienced CEOs.

Exaggerating the challenges female executives face often does them more harm than good. It exacerbates their own performance anxiety and adds to the pressure boards feel to ensure their investment pays off – pressure they naturally pass on to the CEO, who usually doesn’t need it.

The media attention also stokes resentment among male executives – particularly those who were passed over for the job – not to mention employees, investors and the general public who feel, and rightly so, that nobody should be making excuses for chief executives of big public companies who make eight or nine figures.

Nobody has to make excuses for long-time Googler Susan Wojcicki, now CEO of YouTube. The pressure of being a female executive hasn’t stopped Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg or Marni Walden – the top executive behind Verizon’s acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo.

At the end of the Journal story, former Simplex Solutions CEO Penny Herscher said, “every CEO of a beleaguered company, male or female, green or pink, is criticized. That is part of the job.” And the way it should be.