Leaving Gender at the Door: Can We Do That for Marissa Mayer?


Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Because you’re still asking me that question.

What I see whenever I sit at my desk at home.


What I see whenever I sit at my desk at home.


NSFYE (Not Safe For Yahoo! Employees)

So, Marissa Mayer banned working from home for her Yahoo! employees. Hilarity ensued. Not really. More like polarization between women has intensified. I have a vague sense male CEOs and workers are sitting down with popcorn to watch the catfight and go “Rawr.”

I worry that our reactions, no matter how well-intended and articulate and based in truths, aren’t wholly productive. Why is it more outrageous for a female CEO to ban flextime than for a male CEO? I don’t think it is. It’s a questionable business decision, and only time will tell if it is a good one, but would the outrage be as severe if it came from a man? I doubt it, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Let’s talk about the policy itself. It constricts parents of both genders. It constricts adults of both genders. It constricts any male or female who would like to enjoy the benefit of staying home with a sick kid, taking an aging parent to the doctor, or giving blood at a time that is convenient for them. In this post I wrote last June, I posited the following:

Ideally, in order for one spouse to have true flexibility in and control over his or her scheduling, the other spouse would have it, too. Because for every mother I know who needs flexibility to support her career, I know a father who needs flexibility to support his family life. For every mother who needs control over her schedule so she can present a case in court or put on a hard hat and climb into the sewers, there is a father who needs flexibility to leave work early to coach his daughter’s softball team or make dinner while the mother is making closing arguments.

Let’s talk about the person who issued the policy. Marissa Mayer never claimed to be a pioneer/crusader for the family-friendly workplace. Au contraire. I think she made it very clear from the time she was hired that work was her priority. Frankly, this policy change doesn’t surprise me at all. My friend, Elissa Freeman, wrote a piece defending Mayer, and even expressed the hope that:

(m)aybe, just maybe, Mayer has a grander plan. Once she has the credibility of saving a company and winning the respect of Wall Street, she will have the potential of standing on an even grander soapbox for carving out family friendly policies. Policies that even the old boys will have to take into consideration.

Maybe, though I doubt she will, because that is not who she claimed to be or what she claims to want.

I understand having higher hopes for a female CEO of such a large company. (I, too, cheer a little louder for the underdog when they break through barriers, whether it is a female CEO, a gay couple getting a marriage license, or the New York Mets breaking .500.) Yet, just because a person is in possession of a uterus doesn’t mean she also possesses wisdom, empathy, or vision. As a matter of fact, I know of plenty of women who hurt the causes of gender equity and families in general. Last January, I decried a new rule by the Federal Reserve making credit cards available based on individual, rather than household income. In that post, I was urging women to get more involved in politics. Then, I did more research on the Federal Reserve. Three of the five members at the time were women.

It’s understandable women feel thrown under the bus by one of their own. I’m disappointed, too. But I’m inclined to be cautious with my criticism. I fear we do more harm than good by having different expectations for women in power than men. I worry when we criticize a person rather than a policy. I don’t want to cloud the very important issue of family-friendly work-places and productivity by calling Marissa Mayer on the carpet for being a FEMALE who made a certain decision rather than a CEO who made a certain decision. Counterintuitive as it seems, advancing gender equity might be better achieved by leaving gender OUT of it.

Cross-posted with permission from guest contributor Aliza Worthington. Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore, MD. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer image via Amazon.com

  • Had Mayer been a male who built (albeit at her own expense) a nursery for a newborn next to his office, I think there would be just as much vitrole.

  • Ollie Rex

    It’s not because she’s a female, it’s because she’s obtuse to anything outside of her own needs. Besides, this is a problem of poor management, not telecommuting. And looking at the latest yahoo site changes under this new CEO’s watch, I’d say it’s not the telecommuters who are the problem. The site is hideous. And the hypocrisy, don’t ask your employees to sacrifice and then flaunt the fact that you don’t have to ! as when she built a private nursery at work so she can spend time with her child, and denies the same for her coworkers. http://imgur.com/tBF1K8Q

  • dave

    Can someone explain to me what Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its creator have to do with Yahoo banning flexi time?

    I’m totally failing to see the connection, sorry if I’m being really dumb.

  • Sherry

    Here is the thing. Yahoo is not doing well. She needs to have the company running well to make sure all everyone stays employed. I work at home for myself, i chose to start my own company so I can do so I can stay home. When I added some employees I wanted them to work in my home because I need to check quality of work and to make sure they were on task. I found when the work went home the quality dropped and units were not being done and I was paying for more hours. So for an hour rate it never worked.
    Salary employee have to meet requirements, if the report is due it is due. The person work ethics plays a huge part if someone is successful at working at home. If you are a worker you will be a worker regardless of your environment. The problem is there were people who were not doing there jobs while working at home and they wrecked it for everyone.
    In this case she was being the CEO regardless to her gender. She is not being heartless she is being realistic..

  • Thank you so much for commenting!

    Bernadine – there may very well have been.

    Ollie – I wonder if the employees will demand the thing Mayer provides herself – quality on site daycare, other perks, since she is forcing them to be in the office for all their work time.

    Dave – you’re not being dumb! I used that quote from Joss Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because it supported my notion that: a. People don’t often equate strength with women, b. that he wants to keep writing strong female characters until it stops being the anomaly, and c. character should be judged on merits, not gender.

    Sherry -you may be right – and she may b making a good decision for Yahoo! I should be no surprise, though, that there is extkremely negative reaction, especially given the tone and wording of the missive. Should be very interesting to follow up on what happens there.

  • Onyx

    I understand what you’re saying. We should not expect more of her simply because she is a woman and women are supposed to have “family life” as their primary consideration. But it also seems that we’re falling into a dangerous trap (not just you, but many of the defenders of Mayer that I see), of defending her only because she is a woman who made this choice. As if she can’t take the criticism. Or worse, as if we should agree with bad decisions simply because it is a woman making it and we don’t want to seem like we’re criticizing her simply because of her gender. I don’t know if that is any better. Unfortunately in this instance we can’t separate her gender from her choices (we cannot have a similar discussion about whether a male CEO would return back to work so soon after giving birth because is simply isn’t possible for him to do so and even if it is framed as “so soon after his child is born”, it is not the same physical circumstance), so it is hard to know whether people would react the same as they are now.

    • Thank you so much for that comment.

      To clarify – I am not defending her at all. I’m saying I’d be as angry as if a man had made the same decision, and that heaping EXTRA venom and criticism upon her (which many women did) because she is a WOMAN who made this anti-family decision may be counterproductive. Even if it is properly intuitive and understandable.

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