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Executive privilege: Marissa Mayer’s HR decisions at Yahoo

When the Yahoo CEO banned working from home in February, outrage followed. Yet when a middle-aged male CEO made a similar decision in March, there was barely a whimper.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

WHEN YAHOO CEO MARISSA MAYER banned working from home in February, outrage followed. Yet when Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, a middle-aged man, made a similar decision in March, there was barely a whimper. Both are new CEOs trying to turn around struggling companies, so what explains the different reactions? A double standard rooted in desperation.

 We all but expect decisions that aren’t family-friendly from men in power, but one coming from a rare female CEO felt like a betrayal. Mayer — 37, stylish, and five months pregnant when she took the Yahoo job — seemed to promise a new way of doing business. In an era when work-life balance has become entangled with feminism and the definition of success, many hoped she would write computer code and a new history for corporate America.

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But it’s now clear that wasn’t on her agenda. Mayer returned from maternity leave after merely two weeks and then changed the telecommuting policy, even as she decided to install a private nursery next to her office, a perk unavailable to her employees. “With the Marissa Mayer archetype — a woman with a child — you assume she will have certain sensitivities,” says Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, a group started at Harvard and now based in Washington, D.C. “We assume she’ll have a certain response, and when she doesn’t, we feel surprised.”

 We shouldn’t. Mayer didn’t succeed by changing the rules of corporate America as she climbed the career ladder. She did it by winning at the old rules, by outsmarting and outworking everyone else in the office. During her first five years at Google, she pulled 250 all-nighters, according to a story in New York magazine. “She will outwork you,” said a colleague. “She will outwork anybody.”

And she did it while refusing to play into tired gender stereotypes. “People ask me a lot, ‘What is it like to be a woman at Google?’ ” Mayer once said during an interview with Martha Stewart (herself no slouch in the achievement department). “But I’m not a woman at Google. I’m a geek at Google.” Some have speculated that Mayer’s ban was designed to force out employees who don’t share her work habits.

By now we should all know better than investing our hopes for work-life balance in CEOs, just as we should know better than looking to pro athletes for marriage advice. The heads of public companies are beholden to stockholders, not society (and Yahoo’s stock is up nearly 50 percent since Mayer took charge).

Yet because so few people from historically underrepresented groups are in positions of power, Liswood says, we throw our hopes behind the few who rise to the top. There are just 21 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to 2012 statistics from DiversityInc., as well as six black CEOs, seven Asian, and six Latino. When one member of an underrepresented group succeeds, her recipe for it becomes one-size-fits-all.

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So how do we stop overloading these leaders with our hopes? By making more of them. Says Liswood: “Once we get the critical mass of O’s in a room full of X’s, not every O has to represent all O’s.” Only then will we stop pushing heroic expectations — feminist and otherwise — on people who never asked to be heroes for the cause in the first place.

 Substantial changes to the American workplace will never come because one CEO, male or female, issues some sweeping edict. Instead, they’ll come office by office, with the rank and file pushing for greater workers’ rights (for both genders). They’ll come from challenging companies to accept that work-life balance has tangible benefits for the bottom line.

One day, when a CEO of a foundering company makes an internal HR decision, it won’t reverberate from newspaper headlines to our egos. Eventually, the length of a maternity leave or particulars of a telecommuting arrangement won’t be news to be criticized for how they affect the rest of us, but just a personal choice made in a world of many.

BY THE NUMBERS

4 percent

Portion of Fortune 500 companies run by female CEOs.

Kara Baskin is the author of Boston.com’s parenting blog, The 24-Hour Workday. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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