Career Life/Discuss: How Dare She!

Feb 27, 2013

When Yahoo! announced that it would end employee telecommuting starting June 1st, the decision was met with near-universal condemnation.  Some called the ban on telework outdated and draconian, others decried it as a war on working mothers.  And many, from my Facebook friends to TV pundits postulated as to why the company would make such a change.

Few commenters gave much credence to Yahoo!’s assertion that bringing people back to the office will foster communication and collaboration.  Even fewer dignified the possibility that telecommuting was hurting the company’s bottom line and hindering innovation. The vast majority decided that the CEO’s gender was the foundation of the debate.

Many asked how Marissa Mayer, a working mother, could do this to other working mothers.  But some people took their criticism a step further and asked: Is Marissa Mayer making this change to prove that she can be taken seriously as a CEO?

Translation: Is that girl in charge of a Fortune 500 company trying to prove that she’s qualified to sit at the Big Boy’s Table by telling her female employees that they need to buck up and come into the office like the men do?

Whether ending telecommuting will hurt Yahoo!’s ability to retain talented people or make them less competitive when hiring Silicon Valley-talent is a question that is asked after the reporters, commenters and pundits remind you that the CEO has ovaries.

Why is it okay for a lot–a lot–of allegedly-forward thinking, allegedly-feminist people to scrutinize Marissa Mayer as a woman first, and a CEO second?

The answer is, that when it comes to business decisions, it’s not.  But the peanut gallery isn’t talking about why Yahoo! made this decision, they’re talking about why Marissa Mayer made this decision, and they’re basing their conclusions primarily on assumptions and gender, rarely mentioning facts.

Census data shows that more than 50-percent of telecommuters are men, and that 60-percent of telecommuters don’t have children under the age of 18.  And while the common belief is that telecommuting improves work-family balance, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that telework is “not helpful in reducing work-family conflicts.”  But let’s pretend that most of the criticism stems from the fact that Yahoo! is a tech company, and that tech companies are supposed to relish flexible work conditions…

Facebook and Google–the companies Yahoo! is most comparable to and most wants to be like–encourage employees to come to a physical office to improve work quality, and neither has an official policy on telecommuting, though they don’t expressly ban it. In fact, Google’s CFO, Patrick Pachette–a Y-chromosome carrier, and keeper of the bottom line–recently told an audience that Google wants to have “as few [telecommuters] as possible.”

Whether you see telecommuting as an essential work option or as a job perk or as the fall of civilization, it is not okay for the debate about workplace flexibility to tilt so heavily on the CEO’s gender.  We want more women in positions of power.  We want women who’ve made the climb to have their decisions, choices and accomplishments evaluated on merit, but then we plaster the blogosphere and the 24-hour news cycle with Marissa Mayer’s blonde mugshot, mention how she only took two weeks of maternity leave (!!!) and scoff at her decision to punish other working mothers with a policy that everyone knows is a bad idea.

It really raises my blood pressure.

Every business owner, CEO and supervisor needs to decide how best to run their company.  Yahoo! made the decision that they determined was best for them.  We should evaluate their telework ban based on its impact to their business’s future health, not on whether we think the female CEO might be picking on the other mommies to prove that she can make it in the cutthroat world of corporate America.

You may not agree with the company’s decision to pursue this policy, but I think you should defend Marissa Mayer’s right to guide Yahoo! how she thinks is best and not subject her to an unequal level of scrutiny because she is a member of the Tribe of Double-X.


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  1. Mrs Type A says:

    Amen! I’m not a parent yet, but personally I think I would prefer to go to an office, get my work done and hours in, and then go home so that I could be fully present in both spheres. The blurring of lines between personal time and work time is tough to balance and figure out and so some companies may feel that it’s more beneficial to their bottom line to have their employees work in an office.

    • Ellen says:

      I’m not a parent yet either, but I know when talking with friends that do work from home they say it is hard, especially when the child is young. You can’t make them NOT cry when you are on a conference call and you wind up not having any separation from work and do it at all hours. Unfortunately, it is an attractive option because of the crazy costs of day care. In a perfect world I think it would be a great option for more companies (especially those the size of Yahoo!) offer a complimentary/discounted daycare option.

  2. Mel says:

    I was just having this discussion on Facebook. I think people should stop focusing on “Mayer is hurting working moms” and realize that both she and the exec board had to make a very difficult decision to cut some fat at the company and the fastest way to do that is to insitute a policy that will convince some people to leave.

    • AR says:

      I see your point but I think the flaw in that argument is that you’re cutting the wrong kind of “fat” – i.e. possibly losing some of your top talent and not really letting go the underperformers. Add to that, those that will stay for one reason or another, will likely be disengaged and not pulling their full weight in.

      Regardless of the CEO’s gender, this seems like a step back for major fortune 500 company when so much emphasis is put on adapting to the new work environment, blurring of the lines, the fact that nature of work is different now etc. Sadly it proves the point that – no matter the pretty talk companies talk about flexible work arrangements, facetime is what makes you get ahead.

      Interestingly, NYT had an interesting feature recently around a similar theme:

  3. BN says:

    I agree with your commentary about the media making this more about her chromosomes than her business skill, but I am curious to know your thoughts on the new nursery she had built next to her office so she can bring her baby to work.

    • Belle says:

      I tried to find out if Yahoo! offers on site daycare. But I couldn’t find that.

      But to my mind, executives get a lot of perks that rank and file don’t get–gums, dining rooms, travel accommodations, maids, etc.–so I don’t think it is that unusual for a CEO to get a perk like this, ESP. Since she paid for it herself. But I’m interested to see what childcare options are on site at Yahoo!

  4. Red says:

    Brava! Mayer is helping workers (men and women) by keeping the company healthy and competitive. If telecommuting was a huge win for Yahoo, they would not be shutting it down as an option. Perhaps we should interview the poorly performing telecommuters about why they’re punishing working mothers by turning in shoddy work.

    It’s not about gender. It’s about the bottom line. Seeing it muddied up like this in the media is an embarrassment to women and feminists alike.

    • GingerR says:

      I wouldn’t assume it’s shoddy work on the telecommuters part. They may well be producing a high-quality product, that no one wants to use. Quality – in terms of no-errors, rapid development, adherence to specifications- does not automatically equate to market success.

  5. swampette says:

    Ken Layne at The Awl had a really great take-down of the criticism of Mayer yesterday afternoon – I’d encourage everyone to take a look at it.

    For my two cents – I think Mayer’s decision has less to do with her gender and more to do with her history at Google, where telecommuting isn’t permitted. My question is, will she now make Yahoo’s offices as employee-friendly as Google’s famously are? Happy employees = productive employees. I think EXCELLENT workplace perks are the best solution, but telecommuting has been a substitute for companies looking to cut costs.

    Also, I have frequently telecommuted during my career, and those workdays go way past nine-to-five, sometimes almost until bedtime. I’ve never had that problem when I’ve had an office. So yes, maybe you’re home more with your kids, but are you really spending time with them? It is really any better for them or you?

    I wonder what the reaction would be if a male CEO made the same change?

  6. Becca says:

    @BN – Amen!

    While I agree it shouldn’t be about her gender, I really think the decision would bother me just the same if it was a male executive. I’d like to say, it’s not all about working mothers either. It’s also about productivity and cost savings. I don’t have kids but on the days I work from home I’m more productive (less people bothering me and two extra hours to work thanks to no commute) and I save money (over $11, thanks to no metro fares).

    What bothered me about the decision was that there was no middle ground. I understand hauling the workers back in who work 100% from home. But what about the people who work once or twice a week from home? Being in the office some days and out of the office other days allows for a balance of innovation and productivity.

    Furthermore, the actual memo itself made it seem like Yahoo is taking any and all flexibility out of the situation. The stuff about waiting at home for the cable guy? Come on. The reality is that sometimes your car is broken, the washing machine flooded the house, or you feel like crap and don’t want to infect the entire office. Some days you need to stay home. And taking such a hard line is just bad for morale.

    If Yahoo is worried about worker productivity and innovation slumping due to telework, they should address that on a case by case basis. Not just by completely and totally banning all telework.

    • Belle says:

      Sure, it would bother you. If I were a telecommuting employee, I’d be furious. But if the he’d of eBay or another tech co with a male CEO did this, it would not be a story of the magnitude.

    • AR says:

      I don’t have kids but on the days I work from home I’m more productive (less people bothering me and two extra hours to work thanks to no commute) and I save money (over $11, thanks to no metro fares).

      – I fully agree with you on this point, I also find that I am able to much better concentrate without interruptions, meetings, chitchat, and the commuting time! It does seem a bit draconian (e.g.: waiting for the cable guy. I live in a society where every service interaction only happens within 9-5pm, so if I were subjected to this policy, I’d never to able to get any kind of thing like that done)

  7. L says:

    Thank you! I’ve been so annoyed by all the coverage of her. Don’t even get me started on the criticism she received for her short maternity leave, because last time I checked she had a husband and no one asked about his paternity leave…

    Regardless, she was brought on to fix a floundering company. Turns out lots of people there are telecommuting, so in my opinion what the heck is wrong with changing that? If she left everything at the status quo there would have been no point in hiring her. She is there to turn yahoo around, that often involves this thing called “making changes”. It has so very little to do with her gender, but apparently her gender entitles people to think they can trash her every decision.

    • CH says:

      I wish people DID ask male CEOs, etc, about paternity leave, and I wish more men were encouraged/able to take it–I think it would be a great first step in making work-life balance a family issue and not just a “women’s issue.”

  8. AB says:

    In truth, Yahoo is struggling and revoking the “work from home” policy is an easy way to get people to quit w/o having to fire them. At bottom, I think that this is what it’s really about. I believe their CEO’s thought it was better for Yahoo to take a hit for not being “family friendly” than for having to fire hundreds of workers to stay afloat.

  9. Anna Louisa says:

    Weren’t a lot of people frustrated by the fact that she built a nursery for her baby next to her office, and then dealt this “seeming blow”? I thought it was the hypocrisy that was riling people up…telecommuting and precedence aside.

  10. adrienne says:

    yes! THANK YOU!

    this is not a woman-on-woman crime. this is a CEO making a business decision for a company.

  11. Rae says:

    Well said! I expect my professional abilities and actions to be judged purely on my performance alone, never on my chromosomes.

  12. CH says:

    I thinks there’s more context here than just Yahoo internal policies and Mayer. In my mind, she’s really not that different from a male CEO with kids in that she doesn’t have to worry about work-life balance and making sure her child is cared for–she doesn’t have a wife to manage those things, but she can afford a full-time nanny and domestic help. While it’s fantastic, as a feminist, to see a woman reaching the executive level of a high-profile company like Yahoo, the very nature of Mayer’s job and economic status means she’s not going to be the spokesperson for the challenges faced by most middle- and lower-income working women.

    But at a time when people are rightly concerned about the “brain drain” that occurs when smart, talented women feel they have lower their career ambitions to get any kind of reasonable work-life balance, and at a time when there is so little support in the US for working women and their families (affordable high-quality daycare, mandated maternity AND paternity leave, etc), it’s troubling to see companies moving in a direction of less flexibility rather than more.

    • mominheels says:

      Well said. I completely agree.

    • CH says:

      Oh, and for the record, I don’t believe that teleworking should be used as a substitute for childcare. But the flexibility offered by telecommuting (particularly setting your own schedule depending on the needs of your day) can be a huge benefit to working parents *and* to employees without children.

  13. ali says:

    Really this has a lot more to do with needing to trim down the company. I know we tend to want to make these things gender issues, but in this case, that might be a bit unnecessary. But good for Yahoo, no one has talked about them in ages!

  14. mominheels says:

    I think she has made several personal decisions as a CEO that call attention to her being a female CEO. She is not the first female CEO of a large company – other women CEOs before her managed to keep their child-rearing out of the workplace. Which by the way is the situation for most of us working moms. Many of us work in professional environments where our rising through the ranks requires us to keep our kids way out of the professional picture.
    And for the record teleworking is not just a family friendly tool, in the current economy it is a smart way to recruit talent. I just think it would have been smarter to suck it up and fire folks if that was the intent.

  15. Question Everything says:

    Was the policy being abused? Why is this a feminist issue?

  16. Val says:

    I cannot telework at my job but have always been under the impression that you cannot have you children home with you if you do (this is true for my sister who works in gov). I cannot see how you can expect to be very good at either your job or parenting if you’re trying to do them simultaneously. I don’t think teleworking is the answer for working moms. On site daycare and more paid sick leave seem much more useful.

  17. Montana says:

    Yahoo is DOA anyway. Maybe employees will find something that better suits them.

  18. Boston mama says:

    Hi Belle!
    I love your blog, fashion, and career advice! I do agree that every business owner, CEO and supervisor (regardless of gender) needs to decide how best to run their company. However, I don’t think ending employee telecommuting in a large software company like Yahoo, in this day and age, sends the right message for talented and hard working people (men and women alike) who crave a flexible work environment. Instead she should examine internal management practices to engage those remote employees better (which is obviously not being done currently), eliminate underperformers, and restructure the company accordingly. I’m a mom of two little kids and I work full-time from home, and like other readers here I put more work hours working from home than most of my peers in the office. For over 10 years I worked in office settings and hated the office politics and long commutes during the winter and sadly it took me years to find a manager willing to allow me to telecommute (despite the fact that 99% of the work I do is online). I believe a lot of hiring managers out there doubt the effectiveness of remote employees, and Marissa Mayer’s views on what constitute an effective work environment don’t help. I agree that this is not a gender issue, but Ms. Mayer, by choice, is in a position of high visibility and power (many female professionals may look up to her). So, is eliminating telecommuting the right message for working parents (women included). I think not.

  19. Kristen G says:

    It is not noted in the article and it should be that Marissa DID build a Nursery in her office for her son to be closer with him. Childern are not to be in an office unless they provide daycare for all. Unless she is now allowing childern to come to the officer, hers should not be allowed.

  20. Pancakes says:

    I actually agree with the decision to end telecommuting.

    At my job, we have two offices — one in a middle-sized city, and one in a major metropolitan area. 95% of the people are in the first office, and a handful are in the office in the larger city. We recently decided to give the people in the larger city the choice to either move here to our main office or find another job.

    The decision was made because the communication was really getting to be a problem. Working with people via email and on the phone was really hindering productivity, and there ended up being a lot of mixed messages and a general lack of communication.

    I’ve seen this issue affect our company first hand, so I totally support Yahoo’s decision.

  21. Ann says:

    I think the criticism of Yahoo’s new policy just illustrates how telework is abused by a lot of employees. At my agency and probably most places that allow situational or regular telework, telework is not supposed to be used as a substitute for child care. If you are teleworking, you are not supposed working, not monitoring your children while you work and if you have kids at home you are supposed to have someone else watching them.

  22. Hannah says:

    I just don’t like that the media has focused on two very minor bits of information here – It’s not Marissa Mayer saying “Moms aren’t allowed to work from home anymore” it’s *Yahoo’s executive Team* saying “Nobody will be working from home anymore”. I hate how its been twisted to seem like Ms. Mayer is personally attacking “her own kind”. Ugh.

  23. Sarah says:

    I have a question about work/life balance- what is y’alls take on staying late to prove your dedication to your workplace? In my position right now, it isn’t needed and I am able to get everything done during working hours. A coworker of mine said that it looks bad to leave at 5:00 or 6:00, or whenever the boss leaves (if after 5:00 or 6:00) as it shows you aren’t driven, ambitious, etc. Could anyone offer me suggustions??

    • Sarah says:

      *suggestions, oops!

    • Boston mama says:

      My two cents: I would have a candid discussion with your boss on the topic and go from there. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that I would informally survey his/her other direct reports regarding work hour “trends” in your group. I suggest this because I’ve seen firsthand very different approaches to evaluating work “dedication” – some managers focus on actual completion of milestones (independent of work hours) and others, sadly, associate productivity with putting long hours in the office. It varies greatly. Good luck.

  24. Cynthia W says:

    I really don’t think that the issue is totally about her gender – some of the stuff about her maternity leave is, but I think that has a lot to do with women fearing that expectation will roll down slope and more employers will expect everyone to be back on the job after two weeks.

    I think that the real issue is the complete and utter hypocrisy of ending telecommuting while building yourself a private daycare at work that no one else has. I really don’t think that Yahoo! has onsite daycare for other employees because why would she have had to build a nursery otherwise? Plus, in articles about great benefits that some companies have, Yahoo! is discussed and they don’t mention onsite daycare – and it’s mentioned for several other companies in the article. It would be a bizarre omission.

    I also wonder – they say that she built the nursery at her own expense, so I’m guessing that she paid to rearrange and furnish the space, but is she also leasing that space from the company? Or is that yet another perk not extended to other employees.

    For the record, I don’t telecommute, it’s really not a possibility in my field.

    • Kay says:

      I really don’t see how the fact that she chose to to pay for a nursery in her office is relevant. She is the CEO. Of course she gets more perks than the rest of the company. Based on her background and skills, Yahoo clearly thinks she’s worth it. I don’t hear any employees complaining about not being able to ride in the company jet.

      • Cynthia W says:

        If she was riding in the company jet for her personal business and vacations, I’ll bet that they would.

        Of course it’s relevant – she was very showy about coming back after two weeks, but she’s really not working under the same conditions, is she? No one else could come back after two weeks AND have his or her baby right next door for easy feeding and bonding time, could they?

    • Laura says:

      Oh I think the fact that she built a nursery is relevant, after all leadership starts at the top while she’s telling employees they need to figure out a way to balance it she in fact sends another message by giving herself perks that go beyond what any other CEO’s have male or otherwise. While I don’t have children or have a job where I can work from home I think the message she sends is “do as I say, not as I do” and in my opinion that isn’t leadership.

      • Kay says:

        How do you know that male CEOs don’t have similar perks? Or other female CEOS?

        • Laura says:

          I think the issue here is just because she can do something,it doesn’t mean she should. To me it’s still a leadership issue. This is one of those cases where she shouldn’t have. I see both sides of the argument employees aren’t entitled to be able to work from home but on the other end of the spectrum she doesn’t have the same plight as other working mothers and should have taken that into account before making the decision to put a personal nursery onsite.

  25. Janet says:

    I telecommute a fair amount. I tend to get more done when I work from home, but I miss the chance interactions at work which can lead to new ideas.

    I’m curious to see how this works out at Yahoo.

  26. Michelle says:

    While it’s fully a CEO’s decision to make whatever rules he/she so desires within the confines of the law, I agree with Cynthia W: “I think that the real issue is the complete and utter hypocrisy of ending telecommuting while building yourself a private daycare at work that no one else has.”

    In addition, she flies private planes when she travels for work (that shaves 1-2 hours off your time either way versus the regular schlubs that travel 4 days a week and have to schlep to the office on the 5th day), as well as all manner of nannies and adjacent daycares at her disposal. She has a lot of stuff going for her others don’t that makes the arrangement a lot easier to swallow.

    Plus sending out a memo that says: “Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices” is a LOT different from the Google’s CFO making a comment in a talk that they try to keep telecommuters at a minimum. This is an ongoing thing, part of their culture. This decision was sprung on them (two of my neighbors work at Yahoo, both men – they are pissed). Plus the kind of bitchy comment about the cable guy – what’s that about? It tells me they don’t trust their employees. Though this might be for good reason, trusting your employees goes a long way in creating a “collaborative work environment.”

  27. JB says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your views.

  28. GingerR says:

    B – I totally agree with you. I don’t view her as a privileged woman trying to stick it to other working Moms. She’s someone put in a slot to turn a sick company around.

    The most perceptive comment I’ve read about this is that while Yahoo may be more productive with a lot of telecommuters, the product they generate is not successful. The company would be ahead if it were less productive in producing a more successful product. A productive failure is not the goal of most CEOs.

    I’d also like to add that the best job for a woman is one that does not end involuntarily. Working someplace that goes out of business or lays everybody off is the ultimate in not-family-friendly.

    • Michelle says:

      Ah, but I would argue many people would feel their job did end involuntarily with this move. I work from home part of the time and if my company implemented this policy I’d be heartbroken. I love my job but I also want to volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, take them to softball practice, and run errands when it’s not busy after I’ve just been in 12 cities in four days. I would have to leave – and I’d be so unhappy about it because I love the job but my family is more important. This would be an involuntary end to my job all the way.

      Totally within her purview to do as she sees fit to turn the company around, that’s why they hired her. But she shouldn’t be surprised to lose the best and brightest. The employment market is hot in the Bay Area right now and if flexibility is important to folks they can easily find another job.

  29. Mary says:

    As someone who works full time but is also a part time graduate student, I really appreciate the ability to have a flexible schedule and work from home sometimes. I work in the office 90% of the time but on some days I have to leave in the afternoon to attend class. I make up the hours I missed by working at home, either later at night or on the weekend. If I was forced to either quit school in order to be in the office full time or sit in the office by myself on a Saturday I wouldn’t be a happy camper. I’m wondering if they can still have a flexible schedule as long as they have 40 hours logged at the office. For instance, if they take off 2 hours on Tuesday to wait for the cable guy, can they work 2 extra hours at the office on Wednesday?

  30. JKG says:

    One article said Yahoo! had a lot of telecommuters who simply weren’t working, period, just loafing on the company dime, and that this effort is a way to force out the loafers. If so, why not just identify the teleworkers who are under-performing and sanction them? And if that is the case, the company must have serious management problems. As for workplace flexibility, it has to be fairly applied, not weighted toward parents vs. non-parents. In some workplaces, for example, childless employees bear the brunt of maternity leave by simply picking up the extra work when someone goes on leave without consideration or compensation. Maybe that practice is illegal but I know from direct experience that it happens.

  31. elz says:

    I agree that the response to Yahoo!’s decision has been more about Marissa Mayer than business. A CEO made a business decision that the company would benefit from people actually-SHOCKING!-going to work. the policy is not an absolute prohibition; it said that certain times employee’s needed to work from home would be permitted based upon that manager. From what I understand, Yahoo!’s employees had done more than take advantage of telecommuting, a majority simply weren’t working. The new CEO at my last company decided to move corporate offices across the state. That decision didn’t work for me, so I got a new job.

    As a professional working mother, I find the analysis of this decision to be some of the most anti-feminist ranting I’ve ever seen. It’s offensive.

  32. Kate says:

    Thank you, Belle, for this post! The issue of telecommuting aside, Marissa Mayer is obviously being critiqued in certain ways because she’s a woman. It’s something we see far too often with women in the business world, and maybe more so with female politicians here in DC, and we don’t talk about it enough. Thank you!

  33. Allison says:

    Hi Belle! I am a telecommuter (but not a mother)… I view it as a perk and a privilege, not a right. And I respect anyone’s right to run their company how they wish. That being said, I think telecommuting really, REALLY depends on personality type. I am an extreme introvert and being in an office really hinders my ability to get stuff done. Every little noise, movement, interruption grates on my nerves to no end, day in and day out. Teleworking has provided me with a great tool to be super productive in a quiet, relaxed, and comfortable environment. And there’s so much great communications technology out there that I have no problem communicating with my co-workers and boss. That being said, I know many people who would get distracted, never get anything done, or feel “left out” working from home. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that success telecommuting depends highly on the personalities of the telecommuter, boss, and co-workers. We make it work and I love it 🙂

  34. Chiara says:

    Very insightful post!
    As much as I’d love to be able to work from home (in my field that’s impossible!), I highly value the importance and benefits of having continuous exchanges with my colleagues. Another persone can give a new perspective on a problem, young minds can come up with creative solutions, older colleagues can speak of their experience with a similar problem.
    And I totally agree with you: her decision should not be judged based on her gender!

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