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Sexed up and smart: Women debate Marissa Mayer's Vogue photo

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 4:44 PM EDT, Wed August 21, 2013
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made waves with a flirty photo session for her 3,000-word Vogue profile. Other top execs wanna have fun too. Click through the gallery for more business leaders who like to let their hair down. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made waves with a flirty photo session for her 3,000-word Vogue profile. Other top execs wanna have fun too. Click through the gallery for more business leaders who like to let their hair down.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marissa Mayer appears in September issue of Vogue magazine
  • Some women say the Vogue shoot was inappropriate for a female CEO
  • Other women cite a double standard for how female and male CEOs are showcased
  • Mayer's Vogue shoot marks her first public presentation as Yahoo! CEO

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- And I didn't think Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! chief who caused quite a stir with her two-week maternity leave and decision to ban employees working from home, could get any more controversial.

Enter her decision to strike a pose in the September issue of Vogue magazine, lounging on a hammock wearing Michael Kors and stiletto heels, and let the debate, mostly among women, rage on.

"Smart women can be beautiful," said Jen Bosse of the blog, Defining My Happy. "Beautiful women can be leaders of industry. Women should not have to succumb to societal pressure dictating what they are 'allowed' to be and do."

I happen to agree with Jen's sentiment, but other women saw Mayer's pose as a step backward.

"We fight so hard to be where we are and prove that it wasn't our cute bodies, perky boobs or cute face that got us there," said self-described "pretty geek," Anna Nicole Moose, in response to a request for comment on CNN's Facebook page. "Shame on you Marissa Mayer for playing into stereotypes."

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But can't a woman be powerful, strong and beautiful, all at once? That question drew a range of responses from women on various rungs of the corporate ladder, some supportive of Mayer embracing her femininity and others lamenting the undue pressure on female leaders to soften their image.

Yahoo's Marissa Mayer turns heads with Vogue photo shoot

For many women, the fact that there's even a debate about Mayer's decision to do the Vogue photo shoot in the first place shows that a double standard is alive and well.

"Why are women always being held to a different level of scrutiny in the business and tech space?" said Carolyn Gerin, senior editor of Destination I Do Magazine. "So what if Marissa Meyer loves fashion? Would we think less of Larry Ellison being photographed with his monster boat ... or Richard Branson with his hot air balloons?"

Cali Williams Yost, author of the book "Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day," said, "My hope is that someday we're not batting an eye at CEO women being in Vogue, as we don't bat an eye on CEO men being in Outside magazine talking about how they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro."

Marissa Mayer: From Google 'geek' to Yahoo CEO

Patrice Grell Yursik, creator of a beauty, fashion and lifestyle site for women of color called Afrobella.com, believes Mayer has the right to present herself any way she sees fit, but says sadly, mainstream media showcases women and men differently.

"I can't think of the last time a men's magazine chose to profile a CEO by asking him to sprawl out on a couch," she said. "When, let's say, GQ or Esquire is profiling someone on this level, they're not asking them to unbutton their shirt and pose suggestively with any kinds of props."

The response from Mayer's fellow female CEOs and female executives was also telling.

Barbara O., who only wanted to use her first name and initial of her last name, is a chief marketing officer who worked in the tech industry at companies ranging from Apple to Netscape to Yahoo!. Her position isn't one based on sexism, she says, but on her views about the best way for a CEO to benefit his or her company.

How Marissa Mayer writes her own rules

"The pose that Marissa took for ... Vogue is not one that a man would take or that seems to be beneficial for Yahoo!," she said in response to a post on CNN's Facebook page. "I am fine with her using her good looks or her smarts or her role as a CEO and mother to help folks take a new look at Yahoo!. However, this Vogue (photo) looks to be much more about Marissa being sexy as a woman rather than Marissa looking great as CEO of a company desperately trying to remain relevant."

Grace Chan, vice president for product management for Wanderful Media, said she wouldn't have posed for Vogue as an executive.

"This is something I wouldn't personally do because I believe if you want to be treated equal, you shouldn't take advantage of your physical assets," said Chan. "I don't want to get brownie points because I am attractive. I like to separate the fact that I am a woman and I am a professional."

Other women in leadership positions said they saw no problem with Mayer showing a different side of her personality.

"So what if Marissa Mayer is in a fashion spread in Vogue?" said Mary Cook, CEO of CallSocket.com. "When she 'took office' did she also park her sense of fashion, personal interests, and humor at the front door? I hope she had fun on the photo shoot and she looks great to boot!"

For some women, the issue is not what Mayer did but what she said.

In the Vogue article, the Yahoo! CEO said she didn't set out to lead technology companies. "I'm just geeky and shy and I like to code. ... It's not like I had a grand plan where I weighed all the pros and cons of what I wanted to do -- it just sort of happened," she told the magazine.

"You don't become a female CEO of a tech company for just stumbling onto a career, and you certainly don't end up in Vogue for those reasons either," said Hayley Krischer, a writer of the feminist blog, Femamom, and mom of two. "Mayer has embraced all of her horrible work ethics ... putting a kabosh on the work-from-home environment so why not embrace her aggressive side and tell the truth about who she is?"

If Marissa Mayer can 'have it all,' can you?

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In the midst of all the back and forth were questions from some women about why we women are often ripping each other apart. After all, women have been some of the loudest critics of Mayer.

"She's not doing a spread in Playboy," said Micky Marie Morrison, author of "Baby Weight." "It's not at all inappropriate. What's inappropriate is judging her."

Nicole Williams, LinkedIn's career expert, said, "The thought that women can be glamorous, beautiful and successful is really difficult for women to embrace because I think in large part it's hard. It's really hard to be all those things at once and it feels kind of threatening."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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