When Marissa Mayer became queen of the Yahoos last summer, she was hailed as a role model for women.
The 37-year-old supergeek with the supermodel looks was the youngest Fortune 500 chief executive. And she was in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. Many women were thrilled at the thought that biases against hiring women who were expecting, or planning to be, might be melting.
A couple months later, it gave her female fans pause when the Yahoo CEO took a mere two-week maternity pause. She built a nursery next to her office at her own expense, to make working almost straight through easier.
The fear that this might set an impossible standard for other women — especially women who had consigned “having it all” to unicorn status — reverberated.
Even the German family minister, Kristina Schroeder, chimed in: “I regard it with major concern when prominent women give the public impression that maternity leave is something that is not important.”
Almost two months after her son, Macallister, was born, Mayer irritated some women again when she bubbled at a Fortune event that “the baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be.”
“Putting ‘baby’ and ‘easy’ in the same sentence turns you into one of those mothers we don’t like very much,” Lisa Belkin chided in The Huffington Post.
Now Mayer has caused another fem-quake with a decision that has a special significance to working mothers. She has banned Yahoos, as her employees are known, from working at home (which some of us call “working” at home).
It flies in the face of tech companies’ success in creating a cloud office rather than a conventional one. Mayer’s friend Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote in her new feminist manifesto, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” that technology could revolutionize women’s lives by “changing the emphasis on strict office hours since so much work can be conducted online.”
She added that “the traditional practice of judging employees by face time rather than results unfortunately persists” when it would be more efficient to focus on results.
Many women were appalled at the Yahoo news, noting that Mayer, with her penthouse atop the San Francisco Four Seasons, her Oscar de la Rentas and her $117 million five-year contract, seems oblivious to the fact that for many of her less-privileged sisters with young children, telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life.
The dictatorial decree to work “side by side” had some dubbing Mayer not “the Steinem of Silicon Valley” but “the Stalin of Silicon Valley.”
Mayer and Sandberg are in an elite cocoon, and in USA Today, Joanne Bamberger fretted that they are “setting back the cause of working mothers.” She wrote that Sandberg’s exhortation for “women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps” is damaging, as is “Mayer’s office-only work proclamation that sends us back to the pre-Internet era of power suits with floppy bow ties.”
Men accustomed to telecommuting were miffed, too.
Richard Branson tweeted: “Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel.”
While it is true that women have looked to technology as a leveling force in the marketplace, it is also true that tech innovators — even as far back as Bell Labs scientists — have designed their campuses around the management philosophy that intellectual ferment happens when you force smart people to collaborate in person and constantly bounce creative ideas off each other.
Mayer has shown that she is willing to do what it takes, with no coddling. She has a huge challenge in turning around Yahoo — she was the third of three CEOs at the company in 2012 alone. She had success brainstorming face to face during her years at Google, where she was the 20th employee, the first female engineer and the shepherd of more than 100 products. The Times’ Laura Holson wrote that when meeting with Google subordinates, Mayer came across like a “meticulous art teacher correcting first-semester students.”
Mayer’s bold move looks retro and politically incorrect, but she may feel the need to reboot the company culture, harness creativity, cut deadwood and discipline slackers before resuming flexibility.
Coming into the office, Yahoo HR chief Jackie Reses wrote in a memo, ensures that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” adding tartly that if “Yahoos” “have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.”
Maybe as Mayer rejuvenates “the grandfather” of Internet companies, as she calls Yahoo, she needs the energy and synergy of a startup mentality.
She seems to believe that enough employees are goofing off at home that she should bring them off the cloud and into the cubicle. But she should also be sympathetic to the very different situation of women — and men — struggling without luxurious layers of help.
Mayer has a nursery next to the executive suite. But not everyone has it so sweet.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.
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