By Marta H. Mossburg
Lost in the self-righteous clamor to demonize Marissa Mayer for making employees at Yahoo work in the office is a sense of perspective.
Everyone from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, have criticized the CEO of the struggling tech company for recently ordering those who telecommute to return to the office full time by June 1.
Ms. Steinem, in an interview on PBS NewsHour on February 26, cattily dismissed Ms. Mayer for her decision. She said that not everyone included in the PBS documentary “Makers,” which profiles influential women including Ms. Mayer and Ms. Steinem, is a “heroine.” She leaves no doubt about her view of herself, however.
And like so many vultures feasting on road kill, legions of others pointed out that the 37-year-old Mayer, a new mother, built a nursery in the office – with her own money – so that her son could be near her. “Hypocrite!” they yelled.
Women of all political persuasions owe a lot to Ms. Steinem and early feminists for giving us a voice and demanding equal treatment under the law, but the uniformity of their criticism reveals they believe we must act one way: in accordance to feminist commandments.
This undermines what feminists worked so hard to achieve – the freedom to choose one’s own path. It also assumes that women should have the right to flexible work schedules regardless of the situation. The current debate over mandatory maternity leave also speaks to that sense of entitlement.
Let’s start with the first issue. Ms. Mayer has never claimed to be a feminist. In the “Makers” interview she said, “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.”
That makes her sin seem to be that she does not give enough credit to her forebears for making her position possible.
But the bigger issue is that she is the head of a large company in need of a turnaround. If she does not change Yahoo’s performance, no one will have a job, which would be really bad for everyone at the company. She should be given the flexibility to make decisions best for Yahoo, where some were running startups from home while earning a paycheck from the company.
In regards to the entitlement issue, Ms. Mayer’s great wealth insulates her from the problems faced by all but a few working mothers. But that does not mean all women should be able to telecommute or receive other perks. Great if companies can offer them and use them to attract the best talent, but what about the millions of women who work for themselves (like myself) or for small firms that can’t afford benefits like paid maternity leave or for whatever reason can’t endorse telecommuting? The government could have mandated paid maternity leave during my pregnancies but I wouldn’t have been able to give it to myself. That is my choice and I am not asking for sympathy, just some perspective on the fact that not every company can provide what would be wonderful benefits if it were financially possible.
In addition, there is no way to eliminate all the challenges of motherhood. Anne-Marie Slaughter addressed this issue with honesty in her widely read piece, “Why women still can’t have it all,” in the July/August Atlantic. As the former director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011 said, “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”
So let’s give Ms. Mayer a break as she struggles to make Yahoo an enduring and valuable company like Google, the search giant she left. And I hope those who have brayed the loudest against her will also be the ones most vocally praising her if she succeeds because a woman who creates thousands of high paying jobs is a heroine.
Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about politics in Maryland, where she lives. She will be an occasional contributor here at CSG. Write her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.