Don’t Blame Marissa Mayer; Blame the System.

Ah, Marissa Mayer: the working mom you love to hate.  Why?  In case you missed it last year, a then-pregnant Mayer disappointed working moms across the country by simultaneously becoming the new CEO of Yahoo! and the youngest chief executive in Fortune 500 history, and announcing that she would take only two weeks of maternity leave after the birth of her first child.  Cue the booing, hissing, and snark over not only the fact that Mayer was sending women the wrong message about balancing work and family, but also, about how she was likely to fail once the reality of having a newborn hit her.  And as much as I tried to steer clear of that debate by emphasizing how different the life of a major executive is from the life led by most of us working moms, I will admit that it bothered me.  Mayer proved the naysayers wrong when she took her two weeks, came back, and then slapped us all in the face again by – BAM! – announcing that she found having a newborn in the house to be easy.

Secretly, I was among those hoping for Mayer to fail.  That’s an extremely horrible thing to wish for any fellow working mom, and I suspect that, deep down, I never really meant it.  It’s just easier to take out your frustration and rage over the deep workplace inequalities suffered by women in general, and moms in particular, on an abstract, media-created image of a person who seems larger than life, who is in a position of extreme power (smallest violin in the world for the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies), and who I don’t even know personally, and likely never will.  The satisfaction of savoring an “I told you so!” moment, in any context, is fleeting; it feels good to be right, but it feels so bad to realize afterward that life goes on while the true underlying problem has not been resolved.

So that’s why I’m trying (admittedly, struggling) to rein in my impulse to trash Mayer for her latest exercise of authority: announcing that Yahoo! employees will no longer be allowed to work from home.  Lisa Belkin has a link up on HuffPost Parents to the human resources department memo issued at Mayer’s behest, which reportedly cites concerns with a decrease in “speed and quality,” attributed to the lack of good old-fashioned facetime. Despite initial rumors of the tech giant’s anticipated demise with Mayer at the helm, over the past several months, the young CEO appears to have won the confidence of shareholders. This move is likely the latest in a series of carefully planned coups intended to do precisely that.

Mayer's worst nightmare.
Mayer’s worst nightmare.

But here’s the thing: Mayer is doing what any other big company executive would do: seeking to maximize profits.  I don’t know exactly what prompted the move, or whether it makes good business sense for Yahoo! in particular, or whether Mayer even considered doing things differently – creating a more stringent policy and oversight for work-at-home procedures, for example – before taking this seemingly draconian measure.  But what’s clear to me is that Mayer is doing exactly what is expected of a CEO.  Her job is to lead the company and make shareholders happy by making them money.  So while I’m not applauding her decision, it does make me wonder if our collective feelings of injustice are misdirected at her, personally, when instead, we should be targeting more globally the political, economic and social institutions that encourage businesses to place profits over their employees’ quality of life.  After all, in the business world, you work for someone else’s bottom line, and you are therefore expected to conduct yourself in a manner that benefits the company to the maximum extent possible, even when doing so means that your personal needs take a hit.

Tell the boss to buzz off.
Tell the boss to buzz off.

That problem is one reason why I’m staking my claim as Queen of my own hive, after years of being a worker bee.  It may not be right for everyone, but entrepreneurship has its rewards as well as its risks.  And some businesses are realizing that family-friendly work policies actually benefit them in the long run, due to the decrease in hiring and training costs that result from higher employee retention rates.  In any event, if Marissa Mayer was a man, then instead of taking the time to call her out for her callousness to working moms, wouldn’t we be satisfied with the eye-rolling more typically reserved for life’s everyday injustices, and then move on with our day?  And while, admittedly, that may just be the problem: that we roll our eyes and move on when we should be saying instead that enough is enough; it’s clear that blaming a young mom who happens to be a powerful executive – and not the system that put her up on that dubious pedestal in the first place – is unlikely to bring about any meaningful change.

Image credits here and here.


13 thoughts on “Don’t Blame Marissa Mayer; Blame the System.

  1. From some additional articles online, it appears that a sizable minority of Yahoo workers were abusing the work from home policy – working full time for startups or just not producing much/any work, and still collecting a paycheck. Of course, that’s a failure of management and corporate culture rather than the employees who should have been fired long ago for nonperformance. I think Yahoo would have been better served with a selective work from home policy rather than a blanket ruling, especially for lower level non-programmers (like their CSRs).

    The argument can be made that this makes for an effective RIF without Yahoo having to actually lay people off. If folks don’t want to make the transition to the office they quit and may not be eligible for unemployment benefits. Yahoo reduces headcount without the nastier PR of mass layoffs.

    Some jobs can easily be done through full or part time work from home. Others cannot. Mine is the sort of job where I could very easily work 1-2 days a week from home but am in the office daily (even if I spend an entire day at my desk). Ostensibly a part time WFH arrangement is possible but in the 10 years I’ve been working in my organization, no one has managed to make it happen. Fortunately thanks to the VPN and a boss who values work-life balance, I do have the ability to work remotely (i.e. from home) on an occasional basis to handle things like a sick child, waiting for the cable guy, or atrocious weather. I don’t abuse it and am glad to have that privilege when needed.

    Customer service, insurance claims, and similar jobs are ones where telecommuting/working from home is very reasonable. I believe several of the insurance companies in CT have done just this (especially Aetna). The thing is, those companies allow working from home when it makes sense for the job function(s) and the employee – it’s not a blanket policy. There are controls on employees that try to ensure they’re not screwing over the company (management oversight, defined performance metrics, etc.) and if employees don’t hold up their end of the bargain they’re recalled to the office or let go entirely.

    I don’t blame Marissa Mayer for screwing over working parents or anything like that with this decision. I think her decision to take a 2 week maternity leave set an unfortunate precedent for other expectant moms at Yahoo who lack her financial resources and relative privilege, but this isn’t the same issue. As CEO she’s responsible to the shareholders to turn Yahoo around (I suspect that’s already a losing battle), not to make every employee happy with optimal child care and work/life scenarios. It sucks, but it’s not my employer’s job to make my work hours and situation suit my life. I do feel badly for those Yahoo employees who didn’t abuse the WFH policy and were hired with the expectation of telecommuting, and that’s why I think the blanket policy is a bad idea. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for an employer to re-evaluate whether full time telecommuting privileges are appropriate for their entire workforce, though.


    1. Thanks for this well thought out comment, Katie. I find your RIF theory interesting. If an employee could show that he or she was constructively discharged by being forced to work in the office, as opposed to from home, such that this is a material alteration in the terms and conditions of employment, can that person then collect unemployment? I doubt it, but it would be interesting to see this sort of challenge play out.


  2. i’m really annoyed with everyone’s backlash on Marissa Mayer for everything she says and does. #1 She’s Yahoo’s CEO and will do what is best (she thinks) for the company. #2 She got to this point in her career with hard work so she deserves this job. #3 maybe i don’t agree with everything she does and says, we have no right to criticize her.

    we are not the Yahoo CEO so we have no right to judge her decisions. and i guarantee you if a man was the CEO of Yahoo this kind of news wouldn’t even be news. i give Mayer credit for doing what she does even though she urks me too some of the time. she knew she’d get a ton of backlash for this but did it anyway. more power to her. my husband’s company did the same thing last year- no more remote working. there wasn’t a crazy media storm with his.

    now just to be fair, i am a work at home mom and if my company did this i’d be devastated. but again it is what is best for the company and those that love what they do will move forward the best way they can.


    1. I agree that this would not get anywhere near as much attention if a man had made the same decision, but as I said above, I don’t think that it’s right to expect every person who breaks new ground “first woman this” “first African American that” to be someone who suddenly changes policies in favor of a more equal and just society simply because of their membership in a historically oppressed group.

      I do, however, think we are absolutely justified in criticizing the CEO of any large, publicly traded company like Yahoo for it’s personnel and employment policies. She is a public figure and the company that she works for employs many thousands of people. The policies that get embraced by companies like Yahoo. In fact, we do too little of this kind of scrutiny and very little consideration of how the profit over people attitude that drives companies to make these kinds of decisions. so, leave her alone because of her gender, but do please continue to call her and all of these other big business types out on their bad policies.


    2. In other news, Mayer apparently had a nursery for her little one built adjacent to her office. So when she builds nurseries for the rest of her employees, or allows them to use hers, I will say that it makes sense that she’s demanding everyone to come in instead of work from home! 😉


  3. I understand the point about making shareholders happy, but the truth is that the job of the CEO is more than to make the shareholders happy – it’s to motivate employees and empower them so that you build a stronger, better organization that is positioned for growth. I would argue that by making this decision, she is affecting employee morale (even in employees whom it does not directly impact) and she will likely lose some of her employees that either cannot make it work, or have an issue of principle. She is also closing the door to some potential talent who need this type of arrangement.

    It’s a tough balance for corporations because I personally know some moms who have had the luxury of flex working – they “work at home” several days a week, and work the other days in the office. I say this in quotations because I know for a fact that they don’t actually WORK when they’re supposed to be working at home. The nanny gets the afternoon off, they schedule their calls around the perimeter of the day or during naptime so that it gives the appearance that they’re working. It’s precisely this behavior that forces Mayer to do what she did.


  4. Of course, there is probably a baby nurse for the infant. She can afford a live in nanny, housekeeper and other “help” unlike the rest of us. It is understandabel as Yahoo wants a profit but we working moms struggle enough.


  5. Forcing people to be in the office all the time also doesn’t account for the productivity lost during the commute, as well as the fact that people can engage in downtime in their own offices just as easily as they do at home. Personal phone calls, social media, etc. all give the appearance of actually working. Perhaps a better way to measure productivity would be to look at actual, tangible results, and make changes when it’s apparent that a work situation – whether in the office or at home – is not working out. Maybe that’s what Yahoo! is doing, but given the large size of the company and the undoubtedly large number of employees it must have doing a variety of work, I doubt that a blanket prohibition on working at home is the easy solution.


  6. I really don’t think that this would even be reported so widely in the media if the decision had been made by a more “typical” CEO.

    I try to never place any hope or expectations on individuals to represent their race or sex or parenthood status in a way that will result in social change and progress. Many people have internalized the oppressive views and values that contribute to an unequal society, and it would be unfair of me to expect that they are even capable of overcoming those limitations. These are often people who reject that idea that there are any systemic problems that need to be addressed because they themselves prove that racism/sexism/ableism/being the mom to an infant, etc can be overcome if you “work hard enough.” And they rarely are the type of people who question the main tenets of capitalism and it’s focus on profit at the expense of quality of life for workers.

    That said, I had hoped that Mayer would realize, though the experience of becoming a mom, that two weeks at home is simply not enough time, and that even if she could do it, the expectation that others do the same is absurd and likely unhealthy for everyone involved. But even if she did, I can’t expect that she would sacrifice her own career in order to become a spokesperson for better family leave policies. Because the reality is that she was already under so much scrutiny for being a woman and a new mom, she would of course feel a lot of pressure to defy all of those stereotypes and avoid any reason to be seen as “weak.”


  7. This is a step backwards for all working parents. I’m going to go out on a short limb and say that Mayer has hired help that would make any woman’s life with children easy. She gets quality time. The quantity the rest of us spend with our kids involves all the dirty work too. She should be encouraging the men in her organization to utilize working from home on order to help balance the load between working parents. I’m disappointed.


  8. Interesting take. I’m pretty sure I’d be upset whether the message were coming from a man or a woman, though. I work from home full-time (with kids in daycare), in a completely different state from the organization I work for, and I firmly believe it increases my productivity. Allowing employees to telecommute gives employers more hiring power and the ability to increase the applicant pool for jobs, thus hiring someone with potentially much more experience and/or a skill set that’s a better match for the organization. For my role, there’s a lot of travel involved, so working remotely dramatically cuts down on travel costs that would be incurred if I were working on-site in a traditional way. I disagree with Mayer’s premise that actual face time, as opposed to virtual face time, is the only way to boost the bottom line. Perhaps her organization just isn’t doing it as effectively as possible. I believe that her recent statements are doing a disservice to individuals and organizations that have highly productive and effective work-from-home models in place.


  9. This is great, Melanie. I’ve been pissed about this since I heard about it a few days ago but your post helps put it into perspective. I wouldn’t be as mad if had been a man that made this ridiculous move and that, in itself, is messed up. Thanks for this. Oh, and I STRONGLY disagree that speed and quality suffer when you work from home. Maybe Yahoo! should have more stringent policies or managers who manage more closely but it’s not the fault of working from home.


    1. Right, and I think it’s also a problem of having a one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to where, when, and how we work. Some people will thrive and be more productive working from home, or at least having flexibility in their hours, whereas others truly do need the facetime in order to stay on task and perform at their best. I would assume that the nature of the work also has an impact. You can already find people commenting elsewhere about how ironic it is that Yahoo! is a website that requires its employees to show up for work in an office.


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