When Yahoo appointed Marissa Mayer as its new chief executive officer in 2012, many commentators – myself included – remarked that it would be a turning point in women's advancement. With her appointment, Yahoo seemed to break all the rules: Ms. Mayer was young, female and pregnant to boot.
At the time, I wrote, "In five to 10 years, I want to look back and cite this week as a turning point for career women, when pregnancy no longer constituted a liability in gaining promotion to the highest rungs of the corporate ladder."
Four years later, I must confess we aren't there yet.
The only thing Ms. Mayer's appointment did accomplish was spur a never-ending debate about whether or not she would be a "game changer." It's a label she didn't wear willingly and, from an outsider's perspective, she did all she could to dissociate herself from any feminist ideals, including stating in no uncertain terms that she doesn't consider herself a feminist.
Ms. Mayer began her tenure by provoking mothers everywhere looking for a bit of work-life balance when she took only two weeks' maternity leave and then banned telecommuting. With her twins, born three years later, came another short-lived maternity leave. Most recently, Ms. Mayer acknowledged that her success came with working 130 hours a week and being strategic about when she slept and went to the bathroom. That ethos doesn't lend itself to being a viable role model.
Now that Verizon has announced its acquisition of Yahoo's core assets for $4.8-billion (U.S.) and Ms. Mayer may or may not be out of a job, it's still hard not to see her experience as CEO through a gender lens. There is a term for women who are offered positions of power in impossibly challenging times, when the risk of failure and subsequent blame remains high. It's called the glass cliff, and Ms. Mayer may have just fallen off it.
She won't be the first, or the last, said Avery Blank, a lawyer, strategy consultant and women's advocate in Philadelphia. Other notable examples she cites include Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, both of Hewlett-Packard, Mary Barra at General Motors and, most recently, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who may one day find herself facing the edge as she strives to manage Britain's exit from the European Union.
"The [glass cliff] phenomenon crosses countries, sectors and industries," Ms. Blank said.
Suspicions that Ms. Mayer was hired to fail surfaced as far back as 2012, shortly after she was appointed. Yahoo was already struggling and Ms. Mayer was the sixth CEO to take over the Internet behemoth in five years. Despite the risk, the opportunity was too tantalizing to turn down, and had she succeeded, Ms. Mayer's status as a CEO superstar would have been sealed in stone.
On Yahoo's part, there was also good reason to choose Ms. Mayer, baby belly and all.
"It made sense that Mayer was hired at Yahoo when she was. Yahoo was struggling. When companies are underperforming, they usually look to bring in talent from the outside. She had an impressive background [at Google ] and was known to understand the user and consumer, something Yahoo was having difficulty with," Ms. Blank said.
Ultimately, the lesson may be that it's still difficult for a woman to be CEO.
"Mayer led an organization in difficult times and that may not have had the resources it needed. Society expects a man to be a leader and a woman to be superwoman. When women fail to move heaven and earth and turn around struggling companies, they are seen as unsuccessful," Ms. Blank said.
For her part, Ms. Mayer has finally acknowledged that being a woman at the top comes with its own unique challenges.
"I've tried to be gender-blind and believe tech is a gender-neutral zone, but do think there has been gender-charged reporting," she told the Financial Times.
Which isn't to say that Ms. Mayer hasn't had a positive impact on women in business, or that nothing has changed in four years. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came into power with a feminist agenda, immediately appointing equal numbers of men and women to his cabinet. Last week, Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. On the other hand, only 22 women currently hold the role of CEO on the S&P 500.
That leaves women who want to get ahead stuck between a rock and a glass cliff. They can choose not to take on perilous roles, resisting the fear that it will be their only chance, or take the job and risk the fall.
In Ms. Mayer's case, I'm relieved she stepped up. At 41, she has ample time to hit it out of the park in another organization. Whether or not another company will give her the opportunity will truly be the only test of progress.
Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.