It’s not that I don’t care about the substance, but because I’ve lived long enough to know how it turns out. Some wars can’t be won because to the victor go spoils no one really wants. And the children always lose.
The most recent skirmish is taking place at the great and once-powerful Yahoo under the leadership of new CEO Marissa Mayer, the fifth in five years. The preceding sentence should be read as: “OMG, do whatever you have to do to fix this!”
Thus, Mayer issued orders that telecommuting employees start showing up at the office. You’d have thought she had called for the sacrifice of everyone’s first-born. What kind of woman does such a thing? Doesn’t she know that balancing work and family was a joke until technology made it possible to work from home?
If she knew it, she didn’t care. And therein lies the rub. Mayer not only irked her employees; she did the unthinkable. She boinked the sisterhood.
Mayer was already familiar with the fallout that comes from acting as an individual rather than as a member of the collective. When she appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine last fall as one of the 50 most powerful women — looking a little too svelte for someone who had just had a baby — the blogosphere lit up. Apparently, Mayer’s critics wanted her to have been photographed while pregnant, conveying the message that pregnant women are also strong and powerful.
Everything is about messaging these days, except when one doesn’t like the content of the message, such as: Hire a baby sitter and get to work. Business is business, after all, and nothing is less sensitive than the bottom line.
I am not as tough as I sound. No one is more sympathetic to working mothers than I. (And, no, sorry, most fathers are not tending the young the way mothers do, and this is because they are not mothers. If you’re having trouble with this, put on your Clearasil and go to bed.)
My sympathy stems from having decided long ago to work from home upon realizing that my child needed me more than my employer did. But I am fortunate. Mine is the sort of work that can be accomplished from home — and, most important, I have a husband. Highly recommended.
It is thus understandable why Yahoo workers are dismayed — and why others who hoped for such civilized options for others — are disappointed. Adding to the insult is that Mayer has built a nursery for her own child — out of her own pocket — next to her office.
Such tidy solutions obviously are available to few and the fear is that all women now will be held to the impossible standard set by Mayer.
Let’s be clear: Mayer is one rare bird. But should she be? Aren’t we supposed to say “More power to her” right about now? By what dictum must Mayer conduct her life — and her company — to please others? She crashed the glass ceiling and we’re upset that she made a mess?
This is how mommy wars get started and why they’ll never end. There’s no winning because, except for the best educated and wealthiest, it isn’t possible to reach the top of the corporate ladder and also take care of babies. In a saner world, we wouldn’t try.
Meanwhile, Mayer is doing what is right for her and what she thinks will improve her company’s performance. She clearly believes that making her talented workers convene in the same physical space is crucial to improving performance.
She is probably not wrong to imagine that pooling talent will engender greater creativity, synergy and all those other happy buzzwords of successful enterprises if people talk to each other in person. The Internet may be a universe of free-ranging thought, but there’s nothing like the chemical combustion of human contact that leads to the birthing of ideas. Here’s one:
Why not build a state-of-the-art day care center at Yahoo for all those employees who, though their minds may be present, will have left their hearts at home? Mayer, who obviously sees the benefit to her own child, could send a long-overdue message to corporate America: Having children nearby makes workers less stressed and more productive. Call it “The Bassinet-Bottom Line Initiative.”
If innovation plus compassion leads to profit, who knows? We may finally declare a truce after all.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.