Who would have thought that an HR memo would be the most provocative piece of writing by a woman this year? Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo ending telecommuting at the company has elicited the type of scorn that the feminist community usually reserves for rape apologists and Dov Charney. Although none of these feminist bloggers actually work for Yahoo! and will, therefore, not be affected by this memo in any way, many reacted as though Mayer came to their home and spray painted “slacker” on their front door. This is, of course, insane. While telecommuting may be ideal for certain positions and specific companies, it certainly isn’t working at Yahoo!, whose stock is currently trading at 22.09. Google, which Meyer left to helm Yahoo!, is trading at 814.71. In the midst of this media maelstrom, it has been the traditionally conservative, male business community that has come to Mayer’s defense, including Michael Bloomberg, arguing that the CEO of a company probably knows more about their employees’ productivity than, say, ANYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD. Recent articles have revealed that Mayer didn’t come up with this policy because she’s out to destroy working mothers: she looked over data and discovered that the telecommuting employees were, in fact, not very productive or efficient. Does this mean that every telecommuter everywhere is a slacker? Obviously not. It means that a CEO looked over company data and instituted a policy that would increase productivity so that the company might become more profitable and, therefore, more capable of employing people. Shocking, I know.
Would this even be an issue if Mayer were a man? We have anecdotal evidence to suggest that it wouldn’t. Steve Jobs famously designed Pixar’s headquarters so that employees had to walk long distances to reach a bathroom, and would, consequently, be forced to interact. No one responded to this revelation by screaming, “But what about the telecommuters!” Facebook and Goggle are both known for designing offices so luxurious that few would want to leave, which is exactly the point. Full-time telecommuting has frequently been shown to inhibit innovation in the tech world. What a floundering tech company like Yahoo! needs is innovation, so it’s not surprising that Mayer decided that she needed to be a bit more forceful after failing to entice employees into the office with free iPhones and sushi. Instead of viewing Mayer as a manager making an individual decision for an individual company, we make her the standard-bearer for all women everywhere. Which is bullshit.
Sheryl Sandberg has similarly been criticized for the recently published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead—a career advice book for well-educated, career-focused young women. Like Mayer, Sandberg is being attacked for not representing all women everywhere who have ever existed. Would we criticize Donald Trump for writing a book that doesn’t address the concerns of undocumented workers? Probably not. We would criticize him for pretty much everything else, but we wouldn’t expect him to adequately address the needs of every segment of the population. Sandberg, who is known for championing family-friendly work policies and female-friendly politicians, is being pilloried for targeting a book to privileged women, who have the choice of “opting out.” While it’s obviously true that most women don’t have this choice, concerns about the work/family balance are familiar to most women—regardless of their socioeconomic level. And if her advice isn’t applicable to everyone, does that render it risible and worthless? If so, then we should probably ban the practice of giving advice altogether.
Sandberg’s famous suggestion that women shouldn’t “leave before you leave” has also been termed an offense against mothers, an offense against women who don’t want to have children, and an offense against poor women. This phrase, originally coined for a TED Talk and later discussed in a New Yorker profile, was the result of a conversation she had with a young Facebook employee. The woman explained that she was having serious doubts about her career because she feared that she couldn’t balance work and motherhood. It turned out that the woman was not only not pregnant—she wasn’t even dating. Sandberg argues that women shouldn’t be so fearful of the work/life balance that they sabotage their careers before they have truly begun. Sandberg instead suggests that women take a promotion or accept a more rewarding position even if children are in the future so that they will have a reason to return to their jobs. Yes, I know the reason most women return to their jobs is so as not to starve, but Sandberg is simply urging women who have more options to “chose their choice” in an informed manner. And Sandberg isn’t arguing that staying at home with your children is a bad option but only that it should be a true choice. In an interview with NPR, Sandberg says that if her son decides to become a stay-at-home dad and her daughter chooses to support a family financially, both would be equally successful because their choices wouldn’t be predetermined by gender. But the Sandberg attacks continue because people stop paying attention to subtleties when a powerful woman steps into the mommy wars.
Much of the criticism of Sandberg’s book has consisted of relatively predictable arguments about privilege, but it has also generated a type of personal response that is maddening. Slate’s Jessica Grose, who I normally adore, argued that because she had a difficult pregnancy and couldn’t maintain a demanding position, Sandberg—and her book—are anti-feminist. While I agree with Grose that we should champion every woman’s right to maternity and disability leave, Grose’s story is hardly representative of most pregnancies. Jobs don’t work out for numerous reasons, but that doesn’t mean that all job advice should be discounted because it doesn’t apply to every possible scenario. Somewhere, a bunch of old, white Republicans—and young, white Republicans—are laughing at how progressive women are spending their time attacking other women instead of seeking change that could benefit everyone.
And this, of course, leads to the overriding complaint about both Sandberg and Mayer: they focus too much on women helping themselves and fail to address the need for policy shifts that would make the workplace more family-friendly. Sandberg has been a vocal supporter of such policy changes, but apparently no one remembers this. Mayer, though much less politically vocal than Sandberg, has also been known to support family-friendly policies. In Hannah Rosin’s 2012 study of the economic rise of women—The End of Men (And the Rise of Women)—she recounts a story wherein Mayer discovered that a female employee was considering leaving Google because she was often detained in pointless meetings that caused her to miss most of her child’s after-school functions. Instead of making a female-only policy, which would likely have resulted in the promotion of fewer women, Mayer instead instituted a company-wide policy that allowed all employees—regardless of their genitalia—to leave early one day a week. This created more flexibility without ostracizing the female employees. Obviously, one could argue that Mayer’s infamous memo contradicts this spirit of flexibility, but I would counter that in both cases Mayer was acting as a manager who understood what her particular employees needed. And creating a bit of flex time is not the same as allowing a large percentage of your employees to continue working in a manner that has proven inefficient. I’m sorry, but no CEO would do that.
The most flummoxing critique of Sandberg and Mayer is the argument that we shouldn’t use economic power as a metric for measuring female success. This is where I throw my hands up. Life is not an MA seminar where we can argue about the relative merits of Marxism while discussing which organic crops we should grow in our future utopia. Money isn’t the only way to measure success, but having the means to support oneself is a pretty reasonable goal. And we certainly shouldn’t attack women for seeking this type of control over their lives. One of the most telling statistics in THE END OF MEN details how domestic violence rates have plummeted as women’s economic power has grown. This shouldn’t be shocking because women are much less likely to stay with an abuser if they have the means to leave. But it’s a good thing to remember in the midst of this ridiculous memo scandal. Feminist bloggers claim to be interested in these nameless women, but instead of detailing such successes, we are too busy discussing whether two wealthy women are sufficiently perfect. Well done, feminist community. Well done.