Marissa Mayer is insulting our intelligence
Let’s set aside last week’s fury over telecommuting. Telecommuting is fine. It is widely accepted and often useful and in no danger of disappearing from the corporate landscape, regardless of what anyone working at Yahoo has to do.
The real problem with the tech giant’s human-resources bombshell last week — the pronouncement that employees will no longer be allowed to work from home, except when they briefly need to wait for the cable guy — is that it insults so many people’s intelligence.
Insult one: Assuming that a major personnel decision, in a major US company, won’t get attention (or not caring if it does).
Insult two: Thinking no one will smell hypocrisy from a new-mom CEO who built a nursery next to her office.
Insult three: Hewing to an all-or-nothing paradigm that hasn’t been relevant for years.
It’s not that Yahoo’s new policy is completely wrong. Human contact can be good for the company and the psyche. And it’s quite likely that some workers were abusing their work-from-home privileges. Respecting people’s intelligence cuts both ways.
But does Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — who took her post last summer while pregnant and bloated with symbolism — really believe that no one can ever work from home, or be trusted with a flexible schedule? Does she really see herself as the only model of success?
The new policy does seem modeled, in part, on Mayer’s own work-life experience. “For me, work is fun, and fun is work,” she said in an interview for the PBS documentary “Makers: The Women Who Make America,” and to some degree, that’s the ideal. As Betty Friedan wrote in “The Feminine Mystique” — the book that turned 50 last month — meaningful work can be its own reward, though the paycheck is useful, too.
But Friedan was writing at a time when women were expected to get 100 percent of their fulfillment from vacuuming and making sure their husbands felt relaxed when they got home from the office. A half-century later, Mayer hews to the opposite extreme. In a number of interviews, she's outlined her theories of work-life balance, which have to do with embedding yourself in work, then choosing one thing that helps you recharge: A night off every week to have dinner with friends, or a chance to travel every few months.
If that works for Mayer, good for her. It might fit in with the ethos of Silicon Valley, or the ethos of the hungry career climber. (I remember the one-upsmanship between friends when we were just out of college. “I worked 80 hours last week.” “Oh, really? I worked 95, and then I dog-sat for my boss.”) Immersion can move you up the ladder, or earn you the right to ask for flexibility in the future.
But immersion is hardly the only recipe for productivity. And an immersive job like Mayer’s, with its the obvious perks, isn’t the only definition of fulfillment — despite what we’re currently hearing from the self-appointed gurus of female career advancement. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wants women to “lean in.” Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton laments that she couldn’t have a demanding government job with teenagers in another state.
To the extent that these women want to be mentors, great. But the truth is that most women — and men — are quite willing to accept tradeoffs. Ramping down from the fast-track to take care of kids or engage in some other pursuit might mean you don’t become the CEO, at least not yet. Being the CEO means you miss out on seeing your family sometimes. Someday, even Mayer’s kid will no longer be contained in a room next to her office.
Mayer may be fine with that. (Or, she may figure she’ll be long gone from Yahoo by then.) But her recipe can’t possibly work for everyone. What women need is the tools, and respect, to make career choices for themselves. That’s hardly a secret. So why is it that the corporate top-achievers — so accomplished, so intelligent — seem to be the last to know?