When Yahoo wooed Marissa Mayer away from Google in 2012 to revive its dying star, she was 37 years old and pregnant to boot.  The ailing tech giant was praised for enlightened hiring, while Marissa made history as the youngest woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

It wasn’t long before glossy lifestyle publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair came calling. Marissa gamely opened her kimono to reveal the girly parts: a collection of Oscar de la Renta cashmere cardigans, a penchant for swank theme parties, an obsession with pretty cupcakes.


Four years later, with Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo’s core assets, the media is reflecting on the glamour with glee, framing Marissa’s purchase of 53 companies (acquired to correct Yahoo’s talent and tech deficit) as a ‘shopping spree’ and linking her love of the spotlight to a failure in leadership.

In a rueful Globe and Mail column published last Saturday, Leah Eichler ponders whether Marissa was, in fact, hired to fail. She writes: There is a term for women who are offered positions of power in impossibly challenging times, where the risk of failure and subsequent blame remains high. It’s called the glass cliff, and Ms. Mayer may have just fallen off it.

Maybe a better metaphor would be a glass elevator.  In business, the term refers to the institutional barriers that isolate some employees – typically women and minorities – into the kind of jobs that don’t lead to executive advancement.

The glass elevator I had in mind is more like the one from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.


As anyone who has read Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator will recall, the dizzying height to which the glass elevator ascends once it breaks through the roof of Charlie’s house sends the Bucket family into a panic that prevents Wonka from reversing direction. As a result, the Elevator goes into orbit, where Wonka docks at a Space Hotel and tries to make the best of a dangerous situation.

I’m not saying leaving Google was a bad thing. But Marissa’s decision to hitch her star to Yahoo – perhaps, as Ms Eichler suggests, out of fear it would be her only chance at a CEO role – was perilous.  The lesson to female executives: never give up the world-class chocolate factory for a hotel in space.

Katherine Gougeon explores social and cultural details that have an outsized ripple effect. Follow her on Twitter @kgougeon