March 12, 2013
Feminist Tough Love, Part Two (Melissa Mayer)
Posted by Christine Hurt

Last week, my Facebook feed was full of posts responding to Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer's unexpected announcement that Yahoo workers may no longer work from home.  Many assailed this big change in company policy as anti-woman and anti-family, putting Mayer in the cross-hairs of not pulling for her own kind.  Mayer was first applauded when she was hired as CEO, while she was pregnant.  Then, she was criticized for returning to work after a leisurely two week maternity leave.  Mayer has said that she does not describe herself as "feminist" or "militant" or having "a chip on her shoulder."  That seems like enough notice that she does not have a particularly gender-based agenda.  Even nonfeminist critics pointed out that telecommuting generally increases productivity, so the move seems short-sighted.

However, others applauded her decision.  Interestingly, my FB friends who were aghast by Mayer's announcement were of my generation or older.  My young former students who are now associates and having babies were very supportive.  Some in the media have tried to explain that Mayer may just be wanting to make Yahoo a little more like Google, where few telecommute and employees enjoy free food and activities at Google headquarters.  Having everyone eat, work and play together may encourage innovation, creativity and collaboration, as well as boost morale.  Even our Glom alum and my former colleague Vic Fleischer pointed out that showing up to an office with free food and gyms is like getting money tax-free.

I'm not a good telecommuter.  What attracted me to the University of Illinois in 2006 was that everyone came into the office.  Even in the summer.  Champaign allows most folks to have a 5-10 minute commute, so there's no great excuse for working for home.  The summer of 2006 was great for me.  Folks went to lunch, we had brownbags and paper presentations, and I felt fully integrated into the school.  I made friends, formed my village, and dug in.  I could bounce ideas off of people and get feedback.  I have to say that the dynamic has changed in the past seven years.  People work at home a lot more now.  There are still lunches and bouncing off ideas, but it generally involves a little more planning.  I miss the old way.  I still come in.  I'm not productive at home, where laundry and the dishwasher beckon and I miss the late, great Hankey, who was a great writing partner.  And if my kids are home, forget it. 

This week, Mayer is under fire for a new policy of reviewing every new hire and demanding academic qualifications.  I don't recall every new policy that male CEOs institute being vetted by the media.  Why is this news?  She's trying to turn around a company.  I'm not sure why every non-Yahoo yahoo out there gets to second-guess her every move, from every angle.

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