Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Essentially Disappointed

My post about workplace flexibility was apparently very well-timed, as days later the work/life balance debate became front and center in the media when Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo! CEO, announced that Yahoo! would no longer allow telecommuting.  Mayer also happens to be a new mother.  Many are outraged, they fear that such a rule sends the wrong message about workplace flexibility in corporate America and will disproportionately affect working mothers.  Others, even if they disagree with the ban, feel that judging Mayer for making such a choice is a bunch of feminist essentialism.  That is, if we wouldn't have questioned the decision if a working dad made it, we shouldn't be questioning Mayer (interestingly, the two women I found who shared this sentiment have had work-from-home careers and admit they wouldn't be in the workforce without that type of arrangement.  See here). 

Should we ignore the fact that she's a woman and new mother in the name of feminist non-essentialism?  I don't think so.  We only have a handful of Fortune 500 companies run by women (18 maybe, and that is a record high) and this one was juicy because, as the media kept pointing out, she was the youngest female CEO of a Fortune 500 and she was pregnant when she accepted the Yahoo! job.  I don't think that information is irrelevant or anti-feminist to talk about.  I think people's interest in watching how a young mother of a newborn would handle running a large company shows how important of an issue work/life balance is to men and women in this country.  It is true that if the new Yahoo! CEO were a man whose wife was having a baby, there would be no headlines.  But I think that is ok, because the headlines acknowledge the reality that balancing childcare and career is more of a woman's issue, and that  a new-mom CEO of a large Fortune 500 company may be able to set a great example for a more balanced perspective in corporate America.  If only she were interested in doing so.

Instead, she publicly commited to and took only two weeks of maternity leave and now has ended telecommuting at a company in a poster-child industry for workplace flexbility.  I don't think she decided either because she wanted to hurt working moms/dads - everyone experiences parenthood in different ways, so maybe 2 weeks was enough for her (what!) and she had very reasoned business justifications for the ban, but the message Americans are forced to swallow is, this is what it takes.  Seems daunting and most of us won't make the cut, as not all of us can build a nursery next to our offices like she did or have the help she probably does.  So it is disappointing, at least to me, not because I think she "owes" me anything, but because I made the assumption that if women ruled corporate America, it would look different.  Turns out that may not be the case.

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