Meet Marissa Mayer: Chief Progress Thwarter

This just in from Yahoo: CEO Marissa “My Baby is Easy” Mayer has pissed off working women for the second time – and managed to get under the skin of working parents, introverts, creative business types, hard-core software developers, and basically anyone who isn’t exactly like Marissa.

Her latest mandate puts the kibosh on work-at-home arrangements, requiring all employees to work full-time in the Yahoo offices. Her explanation for this nonsense is that flexible work arrangements inhibit innovation and that “face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture.” Pundits and academics everywhere are pointing to her attempt to mirror Google’s culture, including this New York Times quote from an analyst: “She brings all the Google lessons to the table, and Google is very focused on having your life revolve around their campus so you can spend a significantly larger chunk of time at work.”

Isn’t that FANTASTIC?! At a time when work/life balance is spinning off its axis, yet we have more tools than ever to recalibrate it, we’ve got this Woman in a Bubble with 17 Nannies telling people how, when, and where to work. First, women were up in arms over Marissa’s own virtually non-existent maternity leave. But despite the fact that family leave in the U.S. is sorely lacking in comparison to other countries, I was willing to give her some leeway. Regardless of how much parental leave is available, the amount of leave one takes is a personal choice. If Marissa loves her work and its intrinsic rewards make her a better mother, then far be it for me to judge. The question is whether she expects other women at Yahoo to make the same choice – and that is the core of the work/family debate, particularly for mothers. The beauty of where we’re at today isn’t whether it’s best for a woman to stay home versus work, or to take gobs of maternity leave versus just a few short weeks, but that she can choose. And that all of us, as women, support those individual choices. Bashing other women and insisting that our way is the right way isn’t really what sisterhood is all about. So long as Marissa’s on that bandwagon, I can overlook the maternity leave thing.

But that need to support individual choices is the foundation of why I cannot and will not accept this abolishment of the flexible working arrangements that allow so many parents to feel like they are – for the first time in history – given the resources to strike a balance between a fulfilling career and caring for their families. And it’s more than a working mom/dad thing. It’s also a work style thing. I agree with Marissa that face-to-face interaction is crucial to innovation; the “mindmelds” and “brain dumps” that occur throughout the day are critical in the product groups, where specs are written and features managed. Indeed, this is Marissa’s background, the hallmark of her days at Google – and she was exceptional at her job. But this new policy makes the assumption that everyone works as she does; and frankly, that everyone does the same job (or at least the job she deems most important). And THAT is a giant management misstep.

What about the employees who aren’t tasked with innovating? What about those who are executing on specs and strategy – the developers, designers, writers, marketers? Many of these people work best alone, away from the distractions of the office, in order to tap into their creativity, to access the all-important “flow” that allows them to produce. Clearly Marissa hasn’t read Susan Cain’s influential “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book features a case study of one notorious introvert who took full advantage of flexible working: Steve Wozniak. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him, Marissa? He’s kind of a big deal in the Valley.)

An effective manager understands that people work in different ways – and empowers their employees to work in a manner that garners optimal results. They trust their people and give them choices. This is why, during my time at Microsoft, flexible hours and telecommuting were customary. In fact, if you needed to hang your desk from the ceiling, plaster your office walls in aluminum foil, or communicate with colleagues via puppets (pinky swear – on all accounts) in order to produce, so be it. The proof in this pudding comes from one of my favorite former Microsoft execs, Brian Valentine, who led the Windows team in its heyday: “I make sure everyone on my team understands their role and that they have what they need to execute. Then I stay the hell out of the way.”

Let’s also not forget that Marissa’s sought-after innovation is what allowed a global, virtual workplace to emerge – it’s what gave rise to email, Skype, and Live Meeting. A move like hers flies in the face of what thousands of high-tech employees have bled, sweated, and teared to create. And while I understand that not everyone is productive while working from home, if you’ve got issues with people being distracted by Judge Judy and piles of laundry, you have a people problem, not a policy problem. Manage out the dead wood, Marissa – don’t assume they’ll shape up if you insist they work like you. (And P.S. – just because it’s a high-tech company doesn’t mean it’s Google. Best practices, yes. Copycat bullshit you think will automatically translate, no.)

I had high hopes for Marissa. Not only is she the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she’s the youngest female CEO, and a member of my generation. But her timebomb back to 1962 is an incredible slight to the women who blazed the trail before us, who in all honesty laid the groundwork that’s allowed Marissa to be where she is today. It’s not clear whether she’s unaware of or apathetic about these stalwart efforts – but either way, it’s a problem. So many of us Gen X women were hoping she’d serve as a beacon for progress, that she’d own all parts of herself – the masculine and feminine sides we’d peeked at and wanted more of: the math/science whiz, techie, cupcake baker, fashion fiend. That’s the example we want to set for future generations – of both women and men: that you can be anything and EVERYTHING you are. That you have choices and can decide what’s best for you.

With that in mind, we loved Marissa for her strength and independence, and hoped there was a nurturing, team-spirit side as well – the true definition of being a whole woman. Instead, she distanced herself from the pack and, through her actions (always louder than words), has seemingly shamed choices different from her own. That’s simply not sisterhood. It’s not even humankind.

And it’s nowhere near progress.

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