Marissa Mayer: How to Make the Wrong Kind of History in Two Easy Lessons

by Gloria Feldt on March 4th, 2013
in Know Your History, Leadership, Power, Power Tools, Uncategorized and tagged ,

It’s March—Women’s History Month. I look forward to highlighting outstanding women each year. I was especially eager to profile Marissa Mayer this year. Mayer made history in July 2012 when she became the first woman CEO of Yahoo! and the first woman chosen to head a Fortune 500 company while pregnant.

But unfortunately, lately she’s made history in the negative. The strides she made in her own career could soon be overshadowed by steps backward she’s made for other women—and men too, as it turns out.

The first sign trouble was brewing in paradise came even as Mayer was being lauded for bursting through the silicone barrier while demonstrating women have both brains and uteri.  Apparently she forgot a few chapters of her own history when she said in the recent PBS “Makers” interview:

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist…I don’t I think have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that…There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women.”

Umm, how does a female a CEO of a Fortune 500 company think she became one? And even if she doesn’t want to throw a nod to the feminist movement that opened doors for her, is she completely oblivious to any female “first’s” responsibility to help other women advance?

But that turned out to be just the beginning. The second lesson in how not to make history came a few days before Women’s History Month 2013 began.

Mayer, who built a nursery next to her office for herself with her own money has issued a new policy requiring all Yahoo! employees, or Yahoos as they like to call themselves in that jocular Silicon Valley way, to work in the office every day, rather than telecommute as many have been doing.

Now, I understand why a new CEO, especially in a troubled organization, needs to take disruptive actions to shake things up enough to get people thinking differently. And Mayer is on a rescue mission at Yahoo!

Most new CEO’s take dramatic action of some kind to help communicate their vision as well. But Mayer seems to have a tin ear about how to communicate change. And unfortunately for the men and women in her company, Mayer’s new edict that no one can work from home, sends exactly the wrong, and rather retrograde, message. If she wants everyone to work from the office, why didn’t she create a company child care center, or to subsidize child care for employees?

Because really, should a woman or a man be fired for caring for a sick child, or any child, if at the same time the employee is putting in his or her hours at home and delivering the work assigned?

As professor of family history Stephanie Coontz noted in her brilliant New York Times commentary recently, ” In 1990, the United States ranked sixth in female labor participation among 22 countries…By 2010…we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies.”

But flexible workplace practice isn’t only about taking care of the kids. I started working from home one day a week many years ago when I was a CEO. My children were grown by then. I simply was more productive, could think better without the office distractions, and could finish complex projects requiring deep concentration more effectively than when I was in the office. And I found that giving workers at least some level of flexibility to get the work done without counting the hours they were behind their desks raised productivity and loyalty overall.

Mayer paradoxically telegraphs her financial privilege to “have it all” with her office nursery, while leaving her employees without the flexibility of benefits that bolster gender equality.

There’s been debate on whether Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg, author of the forthcoming book Lean In  has the right approach to workplace flexibility and women’s advancement. Sandberg suggests ”you can both love your kids and your job, and you don’t need to be around all the time at either to be good at doing both.”

Sandberg is right. And she knows her “lean in” argument works only because there has been a deep and broad feminist revolution creating opportunities women in previous generations didn’t have. Continuing progress, the kind of positive history we want to make, depends on women, and like-minded men, moving forward together.

Mayer is not only wrong; she’s tone deaf about why she’s wrong. I predict she’ll have to recant her new policy in part within the month.

Your thoughts?

Check back every few days for fresh Women’s History Month posts here on 9 Ways.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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