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Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg: When Executive Women Keep Other Women Down

This week, two executive women made some pretty questionable business moves. These moves were not only baffling in their own right, but also stand to negatively impact women in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg -- Tell Us About Your Family Plans

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that we need a "much more open dialogue about gender" in the workplace, including "discussing with female employees whether they plan to have children." HOLD THE PHONE.

I was with her on the first part. I do think we need a more open dialogue about gender in the workplace. We need dialogue on creating family friendly workplaces and on ensuring that both men and women have the resources to be able to balance their family life with their career.

But discussing with "female employees about whether they plan to have children." No. The problem with asking women about their family plans is that:

  1. No one asks men about their family plans. It is assumed that whether he has children or not, he'll continue to be available as needed and be 100% focused on his job and his career. The assumption that only women would need to take time off, not be able to travel for work, and have to balance children's day care and doctor's appointments with work commitments, is discriminatory.
  2. People make assumptions about what womens' family plans will mean. They assume they'll take time off work, they assume it will be at least a year (in Canada, perhaps less elsewhere) and they assume that as a mother, her attention and focus will be divided.
  3. Even if we extended the conversation and said that we should ask all employees whether they plan to have children, we would be setting parents up to be discriminated against (e.g. passed over for promotions) compared with their child free counterparts.

In the Globe and Mail, Natalie MacDonald, a partner at Grosman, Grosman and Gale was quoted as saying:

Disclosure of a woman’s plan to have children at any time throughout the employment relationship, either during the hiring process or thereafter, could enable the employer to discriminate against her, by either terminating her employment, or treating her differently, both of which could have significantly negative repercussions for the woman.

This is already a problem for women who are on maternity leave in Canada, so it is safe to assume that it would be an even bigger issue at all times if women were being pressured into disclosing their family plans.

So yes, let's have a dialogue about gender in the workplace, but let's do it in a way that doesn't jeopardize the careers of individual employees. Let's do it in a way that tries to make the situation better and more equitable for everyone.

Marissa Mayer -- No More Working From Home

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided last week that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to work from home. People who currently work remotely would need to either start working in a Yahoo office or quit. According to one article, Mayer sees this as an easy way to get rid of unproductive staff without having to lay them off. A source close to Mayer said a large number of Yahoo employees work remotely, weren't productive, were essentially hiding at home, and no one really knew that they worked at Yahoo anymore.

As a past manager of a team and currently a consultant who works off site and hires subcontractors who work offsite, I am appalled. I'm not appalled at the so-called lazy employees. I'm appalled at the complete lack of management skills at Yahoo. If you can't tell whether your employees are productive or not if they aren't sitting in a cubicle a few feet away from you, that says a lot about your lacking managerial skills.

Apparently, to Ms. Mayer, I'm more valuable when I'm sitting in my car for two or more hours each day than I could be if I used that time to either work or to do other things that make me a more productive employee (like relaxing, exercising or preparing healthy food).

I could go on and on about the many benefits of having a flexible policy with regards to work location. People save time (no need to commute), save the environment (less pollution), can be home when their kids get off the school bus in the afternoon, and more. Flexible work hours (a different, but related issue) can allow people to work at the time of day when they are most productive, to avoid sitting in traffic at peak hours, to be at important events in their families lives, and more. Flexible work location and flexible work hours give people quality of life. It can help talented people who might not otherwise be able to take a job to take it. It can help people be happier and more productive in their jobs.

Take, for example, a Yahoo employee who is currently working from home, has a daycare five minutes from the house, and an ailing parent that they need to drive to a doctor's appointment once per week. That person could easily put in 40 hours of work or more each week. But add a one hour commute on either side of that, with a day care that is only open from 7:30am to 5:00pm, and the need to take one afternoon off per week to take care of the parent's doctor's appointment, and suddenly that person can only put in 31 hours at the office.

Managers and executives need to learn to evaluate someone's performance and worth to the organization based on the work that they complete, not based on having a bum in a chair in plain view of the manager. Maybe it's just me, but a technology company that insists collaboration can only happen in person is an obsolete technology company.

What do you think about Mayer and Sandberg's positions on these issues?

« Gender According to Google | Main | Choice -- We're Doing It Wrong »

Reader Comments (60)

Makes my blood boil. You've set it out brilliantly. Women are destined always to be 'different' in the workplace with 'role models' such as these two. I've posted before about both these women but it never gets the frustration out of my system!

February 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

As a retired office worker and mother of 4, I'm ashamed of women like Marissa Mayer who are fortunate enough to be in a position to further the welfare of working parents, both mothers and fathers, and choose to promote a Genghis Khanian, Hitlerarian, type of management. I thought this type of company would promote the use of telecommunication technology to aide and assist the workforce of such companies to further our society's end goals of being the best technological based economy. This is a huge step backwards for families, society, a technology based economy, and women. I hope she goes down for being so backwards and ruthless.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOzarkLady

I too have a lot of experience with telework (both working from home myself & managing others remotely)

Personally, I love working from home. I'm a lot more productive. I think that a lot of people do equate performance with number of hours worked though even your post comments that it's easier to put in your 40 hours without a 2 hour commute.

While that is undoubtedly true, in my experience telework often doesn't work if your corporate culture is focussed on time spent "at work". Who cares how long you work? Unless you are manning a customer service desk then I'd argue that what you are getting done is what is relevant. If you care about time spent, it's very easy to get spooked with remote employees. You call, and they don't answer because they are in the washroom but your perception becomes "x is never at his desk". If you don't have regular face time with those employees, there is no chance to rebuild trust between employee and employer. Yahoo sounds like their corporate culture is not well suited to telework. If that's true, their staff that work from home probably aren't as effective as the ones in the office - because of the culture, not laziness or bad fits (though there is probably some of that too) I wouldn't work there because working from home is important to me, but when they say it's the right move for the company at this time I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

What a collection of thoughtful comments (and I have to admit I didn't quite make it through them all, so hopefully I'm not repeating too much of what's already been said). What resonates most with me is the fact that neither of these approaches make much sense practically, in addition to the fact that they are unfair. The Sandberg idea of talking more openly with women about if they plan to start a family won't really achieve any goal that she might want to achieve. Why not ask every new hire how their parents are doing, if they are elderly or have any health issues? That could impact an employee's focus just as much if not more as having a child. So she's going to single out a group (which is unfair) and get very little useful information to work with (which is impractical).

The Mayer decision doesn't single out moms explicitly, but probably will have a disparate impact on those moms who are working quite productively from home, but are being hauled in to the office out of some attempt to do some house cleaning, as everyone suggests. This is more impractical than simply unfair. I don't like to wish anyone ill, but a part of me certainly hopes that Yahoo loses all its great working from home moms and pays a price for that. I realize the odds of them realizing their error and being able to pinpoint the loss of working from home moms is fairly low. But we can always hope.

Speaking of hope, I find hope in the fact that at least there seems to be significant attention and discussion about the problems with both of these decisions. This seems at least a step in the right direction. Eventually of course, I hope we will be in a place where we talk about work-life balance without relying on old and useless assumptions about gender roles and child bearing. A real conversation about work-life balance and how to achieve it for every individual, with his or her own particular circumstances, would be incredibly refreshing.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMyla

What strikes me most about the Yahoo statement is that it's coming from an INTERNET company. Can you not think outside the box enough to allow for your employees to USE the technology you sell? Wait, maybe that's thinking INSIDE the box? This is just baffling. As you said, it's simply a management issue.

The question of how many weeks the CEO or ANY PARENT determined was long enough for her own maternity leave is a moot point - I'm glad you left it out of the discussion. Each parent has to choose for themselves what works within their own family. I was working right up until labor, and back at work right after of my own choosing and necessity. The argument of more time = more caring parent = priorities straight is so boring.

I will argue that I understand the desire to question women about their leave plans as they are the ones who are pregnant; and thus, would, presumably, need at least physical recovery time away from work - it's not an issue men themselves have to deal with (outside of, perhaps, caring for their wives during this time, and/or other children). However, for extended leave time - meaning "what are your longer term plans after baby" - that's a PARENTING issue, not solely a women's issue.

Annie, as an aside: With your new design, I don't like that I can't comment directly (in response) to a particular comment.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

I think, both comments show that these two women should refrain from leadership. They are obviously too caught or constrained by corporate thinking. In this day and age, we need progressive, creative strategies and solutions that unite and honor female aspects of our lives with economics and bring balance -- to the world as well as our lives. We need to get out of the hamster wheel, not stay in it. Because ultimately, a balanced approach to - and healthy view of - family and economics will bring prosperity for more than just a few.

I have real issues with women in leadership positions like that, because those two represent the status quo and do not advance the good for anyone. But then, power is in the hand of consumers. Become a smart consumer, do your homework and buy (or use products) from companies that have values you support.

March 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbeautybalancehealing

I think Yahoo's new policy is a step backwards and perhaps management skills are needed at Yahoo to improve productivity of those working at home.
Usually all decisions like these are made related to the money trail and if they are losing money then Marissa has to do something to stop the hemorrhage no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, those working at home who were perhaps not carrying their own weight may have ruined it for those that were productive.
I never could work from home as either a nurse or a social worker but I welcomed job sharing and other work flexibility that enabled me to stay in the work place and take care of my family at the same time.
I hate to see women criticizing other women but sometimes we have to have these discussions to prevent a return to the past.

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

This Yahoo thing is just horrifying. If employees of a tech company can't telecommute, who can? There are other, more effective ways of managing inefficient and ineffective employees. This is clearly discriminatory against working parents and just is awful.

Was this a recent thing, employees telecommuting for Yahoo? Did it "just" not work out? Because I can see people being hired who live outside of commuting distance and working remotely. They'll now either have to move or "quit".

I can see making some sort of requirement like having to come in to the office one or two days a week - that way people have their face time but also the flexibility to care for their families and other responsibilities. But this all-or-nothing approach just proves that Yahoo is a dying company and I'd better switch my email over sooner rather than later.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuliet

I think your interpretation of Sheryl's point does not match her intention and how she plans to implement this at Facebook. In her book, Lean In, you find context explaining this is an effort to make the professional corporate workplace more fair for women. Many talented women in the men-dominated companies Sheryl worked for were making decisions to opt out of the workforce or were refraining from accepting new challenges or promotions because of worries about being able to balance a family and a demanding career. Sheryl wants to encourage a more open discussion to keep these women in the game - not to use as a tool for discrimination. It is not a requirement for everyone to disclose their plans, but she is trying to elevate the status of women in leadership, and she is definitely not trying to hold other women down.

May 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

In reply to Anon, that's the uncomfortable truth about much of this discussion on family friendly work policies. I'm in the belly of the beast, as it were, in law and oil amongst the icons of evil corporate reputations from Enron to Exxon. All of these types of corporations would have more family friendly policies but for the objections of women in power.
There are two main objections that vary slightly with the facts, but the women high up see the family friendly policies as a way to create a mommy track, which would either 1) encourage or allow women to "lean back", or 2) would give others an excuse to discriminate against women by diverting them to the mommy track. Whether women hold themselves back or someone else does, both objections end with how Mommy tracks make boardroom parity hard to achieve. But these objections make family friendly policies almost impossible to achieve.

May 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAHLondon

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