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Opinion | JOAN VENNOCHI

Yahoo’s broken glass ceiling

Daniel Zender for the Boston Globe

FIRST, SHE took a two-week, mini-maternity leave. Then, she ordered all employees to report to the office every day.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new, 37-year-old CEO, is a new mother who isn’t sending family-friendly workplace messages. Instead, it looks like she’s trying to out-macho the men who run most of America’s boardrooms.

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But as Mayer reinstates a business strategy that measures office facetime and cars in the parking lot, she has a nursery next to her office. It makes the work/family balance easier for Mayer, at the same time her latest decree makes it tougher for everyone else.

The rationale behind Yahoo’s no-telecommuting policy is supposedly connected to the need to reenergize the workforce. Plus, some Yahoo employees were reportedly taking advantage of company flex time. Both are reasonable concerns for a CEO charged with turning around a lagging enterprise in a highly competitive field. Like all CEOs, Mayer has a tough job that requires some unpopular decisions. But in 2013, it seems strange to take such an extreme, either-or approach to addressing legitimate workplace issues.

Togetherness does generate ideas and camaraderie — even lowly newsrooms are a tribute to that theory. An even playing field is important for morale. Granting some favored employees more flexible work hours breeds unhappiness in colleagues who are held to old-fashioned, desk time requirements.

But there’s a middle ground. Workplace productivity and satisfaction can be achieved by striking a balance between showing up at the office for creative reasons and understanding when working from home makes sense for everyone.

Mayer has two degrees from Stanford and was Google’s first female engineer. At Yahoo, she has engineered what she considers work/family balance for herself. But her definition of balance could be part of the problem for other Yahoo employees.

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In her first public interview after taking over as Yahoo’s CEO, Mayer said, “I think that for me, it’s God, family, and Yahoo — in that order.” If she believes a two-week maternity satisfies that priority list, soon-to-be mothers who work at Yahoo should definitely consider alternative work environments.

Mayer is interested in breaking some stereotypes associated with female techies. It’s about how they dress, not how they work. According to a New York Times piece published last August, she’s part of a movement to change the techie image from “hoodie sweatshirts, flip-flops and thick glasses” to high-end fashion. To celebrate this new market, Chanel’s president sat at a table with Mayer and other Silicon Valley tech executives at a Las Vegas event last winter. “Designing software and products isn’t all that different from the design of clothes,” Mayer told the Times.

But breaking stereotypes by championing policies that move a company forward, but are still family-friendly? That’s not a priority for a CEO who is one of the most powerful women in corporate America.

Mayer said she wants Yahoo to return to being a fun place to work. To that end, she handed out free food and smartphones. That may charm a certain constituency. But give me a boss, male or female, who hands out compliments when deserved instead of snacks and understands that face-to-face communication — not trinkets — builds a team.

Personal interaction is what Mayer said she’s after and that’s a worthy goal. It’s too bad she established the terms of it so rigidly. The memo to Yahoo employees said telecommuters must be back to their desks by June 1, or leave the company.

For decades, the goal of breaking the glass ceiling was tied to the belief that women who did it would manage differently and still build successful companies. If young women like Mayer are back to work before baby’s first month check-up how does that challenge the old boy network and its thinking? If women CEOs insist the work family is more important than the one at home, it validates every male boss who made the same demand.

It makes it harder to root for women like Mayer to succeed. If women are going to run a company just like men used to, what’s the point? If female bosses don’t change the corporate culture — or if they end up making it even tougher for working mothers and fathers — why clamor for diversity at the top?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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