Family Matters

Viewpoint: How Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Is Building a Nursery By Her Office, and Dissing Working Moms

Is Mayer's ban on working from home blow to working mothers?

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Peter Kramer / NBC / Getty Images

Marissa Mayer on NBC News' Today show.

Toward the end of this week’s much-heralded PBS Makers documentary, a retrospective of influential and trailblazing doyennes who are the past and future of the women’s movement, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer comes on to decry feminism.

The timing was far from ideal, considering that days earlier she issued a much-criticized edict requiring Yahoo employees to close up their home offices and report to work in an office come June. “When Marissa Mayer directed all employees never to work from home, I understood why she said she isn’t a feminist,” activist Gloria Steinem wrote in an email. “Maybe she really isn’t!” Steinem, prominent in Makers, elaborated Tuesday night on PBS Newshour, noting that “not everybody in this film is a heroine either.”

The clip in question dates back a year, when Mayer was a key Googler and before she assumed the reins at Yahoo. But the message was clear:

“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. I think that there’s more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy.”

In a Salon retort headlined, “Free Your Workers,” Irin Carmon argues it’s a mistake to flippantly dismiss the existence of gender discrimination in the workplace as “negative energy.”

“That implies that merely acknowledging discrimination and existing gender roles in the world, and trying to work with them, is allowing yourself to be defeated by them. But the true defeatism lies in thinking that you don’t need policies that help everyone be able to participate, including working from home, and then wondering why your turnover is so high or your employees are so miserable.”

(MORE: Marissa Mayer: Is the Yahoo! CEO’s Pregnancy Good for Working Moms?)

It’s amazing how quickly Mayer’s image has tarnished. Last year, she was Yahoo’s golden girl, a pregnant woman cheered on by legions of working moms as she took the helm of the struggling tech titan. Now, she’s the tough-as-nails, whip-cracking, anti-family crusader.

The transformation wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Mayer famously announced that she intended to take a brief maternity leave, prompting patronizing virtual pats on the back. “There, there,” we wizened mothers told her. “Having a baby will rock your world. There’s no way you’ll be back as soon as you think.” But there she was at her desk, two weeks post-partum.

Alas, with her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it maternity leave and her new policy banning working from home, it feels like Mayer is throwing darts at working parents everywhere. Her stand is even more egregious considering she’s apparently built herself a set-up most moms can only dream of: a nursery — paid for out of her own pocket — adjacent to her company office. “I wonder what would happen if my wife brought our kids and nanny to work and set ‘em up in the cube next door?” wondered a husband on AllThingsD. His wife, a Yahoo employee, will soon have to stop working from home.

Some, like Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, cautioned from the start against making Mayer into a champion of working mothers everywhere. “I hope they don’t set her up and watch her every move,” Galinsky told me in July when Mayer became CEO. “If we’re normalizing this, whatever happens to her — if she does well, if she doesn’t do well — it shouldn’t mean that other women who are pregnant shouldn’t be hired for senior jobs. She should not have to become the symbol of her generation.”

Yet it was impossible not to pin high hopes on the new mom sitting at the helm of a major tech company. As a mom of a newborn, surely she’d see the value in allowing women — and men — to work in such a way that they don’t feel they’re cutting corners. Work-at-home parents aren’t asking to do less; they’re just asking to get the job done in a way that helps them balance work and family.

(MORE: The Motherhood Penalty: We’re in the Midst of a ‘Mom-Cession’)

As it is, working mothers with identical resumes to men are 79% less likely to be hired and 100% less likely to be promoted than working dads, according to research in the American Sociological Review. It’s part of what’s known as the “motherhood penalty,” says Brian Serafini, a doctoral student who found that married mothers take longer to find new jobs and earn less than married fathers once they do.

Why not let those who manage to overcome those obstacles work where they want to? Certainly there’s value in face time, but studies have shown that flexible schedules boost efficiency, retention and morale.

Lest this sound solely like a defense of my own work-from-home set-up, take it from Brad Harrington, who heads Boston College’s Center for Work and Family. He’s found that committed parents are often synonymous with committed employees.

“People who are high-energy, they’re talented, they’re the kind of people who are in demand within the workplace,” Harrington told NECN.com. “They’re also…the kind of people who are going home trying to be engaged with their children, coaching, being involved in community activities and so forth. They’re high-energy and high-engagement kinds of individuals.’’

Of course, all that energy tends to fizzle from time to time. New research in the Journal of Vocational Behavior finds that women are more likely than men to report that work interferes with everything from taking care of their health to maintaining relationships with friends and partners. With Mayer’s decision to keep her own kid close while decreeing the opposite for her employees, it might be worth considering what else her ban on working from home interferes with — morale.

MORE: About that Atlantic Article, Why Working from Home Isn’t the Answer for Working Moms