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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marissa's Mess

Marissa Mayer is the 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo!. She is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and is equally famous for being "employee number 20" at Google. Building a career at Google to then jump to Yahoo! is a pretty good recipe for money-making success: Mayer is reportedly worth $300 million, with her Yahoo! contract valued at $117 million over five years.

Mayer is also the wife of a lawyer/investor, and the mother of a four-month-old son. She was married three years ago at the age of 34, making her 37 at the time she had her first child. A child, by the way, she was five months pregnant with when she assumed the helm of the struggling internet services company.

All of these facts are supposed to make other women, and perhaps especially other working moms, feel really great and vindicated and optimistic about that glass ceiling becoming all the more breakable. Indeed, many commentators take the position that women should be applauding Mayer for the fact that she is one of only 42 female CEO's among Fortune's 1,000 biggest revenue earners. By their logic, it does not matter how she behaves as a CEO, or how she became CEO, it only matters that she IS CEO.

I do not agree.

Listen. I think it's great Mayer is in a visible leadership position in an industry dominated by men. I think it's great she took on the role when she was pregnant. But women should look beyond the title and consider the full picture before they make Mayer the shining example of how women can compete and succeed in a man's world.

If Mayer is an example of anything, it is that women are men's equals in the workplace in the following sense: they can achieve whatever they want to as long as they don't let their family life get in the way.

That is simply not an option for many women.

Mayer first demonstrated her one-ness with predominantly male career patterns by taking only two weeks of maternity leave after she had her son. In workplaces that allow for paternity leave, it is usually on par with that two-week window Mayer allotted herself. She probably still wasn't able to walk comfortably, much less get a full night's sleep.

Now she has pushed through a new corporate policy that all Yahoo! employees must work out of a Yahoo! office. In other words, no more working from home. The memo, leaked Friday, that announced the policy shift reasoned that "[s]ome of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." The memo even warned that if you have to "stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."

The memo and the mentality that spawned it reek of a bygone era of business school cliches. It's as though Mad Men is being used as the blueprint for turning around a tech company of the 21st century. Everyone has to be office-hopping and water-coolering so that innovation can blossom and productivity can increase. Because there's only one way to get work done well, the policy implies, and that's sitting at your laminate-wood desk in front of a computer screen from 9-5 with breaks only for scribbling ideas on cocktail napkins or sitting in your supervisor's office playing nerf basketball as you spit-ball ideas on GUIs while comparing notes on the best sushi take-out spots.

Does anyone else see the irony that a tech company, trying to re-establish itself as a tech giant, does not think that technology can replace three-dimensional face time?

The business logic behind Mayer's decision is a fertile enough field for debate. The personnel play she's making here is what grates on me personally, even though I don't work at Yahoo! And now, certainly never hope to.

Why? It goes back to the fact that still today, in the majority of cases, the mother is the primary care-giver in the home. (Before you freak out about that statement, read it again - first, I acknowledge that my statement only applies to the "majority," meaning there are of course exceptions; and second, I said the primary care-giver, not the only care-giver.)

I am sure Mayer has convinced herself that her decision is not an intentional smack in the face of her female employees, and I'm also sure that she insists that she does not want to be the Poster Child for female empowerment. I also don't know the make-up of the Yahoo! employees her decision directly affects.

I don't care. There is a legal doctrine called "disparate impact," which provides that even if an action is not written to discriminate, it still discriminates if it disproportionately affects a certain category/class of people. What is more, Mayer's policy reverberates in workplaces beyond Yahoo!.

Flexible work schedules are especially important to women, including the flexibility to work always from home, sometimes from home, or sporadically at home. If a child is sick or there's a snow day or a child care provider cancels, a parent has to stay home, and often that parent is the mother. I know that I could not do the job I do if my boss directly, and my company indirectly, did not support me and my need for some accommodation. Yes, accommodation.

Sometimes I get to work a bit late. Sometimes I need to leave a bit early. Sometimes I cannot make it into the office at all. My boss always knows when that will be, and I only do it with her (her!) permission.

But there's a flip side. If my responsibilities at home get in the way of my responsibilities at work during "work hours," it means I make it up at some other hour of the day. On occasion, my work day is from 4-7AM and then from 8-??PM. I get my work done, and I produce the best work product I am capable of producing, but I do it at non-traditional hours.

The big, typical New York law firm I worked at allowed for the same flexibility, remarkable in view of the amount and type of work I was doing for them. The mantra of the partners I worked for was "I don't care when or where you get your work done, just get it done." If they had a particular need for me to be in the office for a particular project, they told me so and I made it work. And I'm sure if they had repeated issues with the quality of my output, they would have told me so and I would have made it better.

Neither my current company nor my former law firm would have upended an entire corporate policy because of frustrations with my individual performance.

Yet here goes Marissa Mayer, taking an ax where a scalpel probably would have sufficed. If she is concerned about worker productivity or innovation, why not have her managers address those concerns with the workers who are falling behind? If she wants Yahoo! to be a place where people are more collaborative, how is she helping that cause by making the logistics of people's lives more challenging?

And if you're asking a mother to choose between her demands at home and a job that refuses to acknowledge her demands at home, which do you think she'll choose? If she's lucky enough to have the option of working somewhere else, she'll choose somewhere else. If she's not so lucky, she'll come to work and be dogged with legitimate concerns about what is going on at home. She won't be psyched about hobnobbing over birthday cake in the break room.

The hypocrisy at work here makes Mayer's decision all the more frustrating. She is a very rich woman. She can afford round-the-clock help with her son and her home. She has also built a nursery next door to her office at the Yahoo! headquarters. Her son can be nearby if and when she wants or needs him to be.

She has the resources and the authority to make her life as an always-working working mother work. No one else at her company can say the same thing. Mayer looks out of touch at best and callous at worst in telling her employees to figure it out, or move out.

The number of working mothers nation-wide who have a support system that is remotely similar to Mayer's is laughably small. Using myself as an example again, even when I was making a relatively good amount of money in private practice, child care expenses were a major drain on our family income and a constant source of stress. I had to carefully schedule my day so that I got things done within the hours of child care we could afford. If my firm had told me all firm work had to be done at the firm, I would have had to leave private practice even sooner than I did. Financially, emotionally, and practically, that line in the sand would have also been a noose around my professional throat.

The shining source of optimism I have seen, as a woman who wants to be a mother and a successful career-person, is that I thought corporate culture was shifting. I thought it was beginning to recognize that (a) career paths do not have to be a constant upward trajectory, but can allow for period of plateaus; and (b) that retention of quality workers sometimes require reasonable flexibility. Both of those steps bode well for everyone, but most particularly for women. I'm in a plateau period as I raise young children, but I still want to be in the game so that I can get a bigger office and a bigger title down the road.

Now that's being threatened by a fellow working mom.

Mayer shouldn't feel compelled to make certain decisions just because she's a woman, or just because she is a mother. If denying the option from working from home is the decision she wants to make, wow, and I disagree, but fine. It's a two-way street, though, and I don't have to like the decision just because she's a woman, or just because she's a mother.

In fact, I believe that so far, Mayer's tenure at Yahoo! has set a dangerous example. It sends a message that if a woman wants to succeed in business, she needs to be a man in woman's clothing.

Sitting pretty. Image via Glamour.


  1. As a mother who has the luxury of working from home, and I do appreciate it as a luxury, what is most ironic to me about this whole scenario is that I am infinitely more productive working from home than I ever was in an office. And, I work in television production--a field that relies as heavily on creativity and collaboration as Yahoo! surely must. The precedent this sets is extremely discouraging to me.

    1. Excellent perspective, and points! Thanks, Jeanna!