What if MARCUS, not Marissa, Mayer banned telecommuting at Yahoo?

I could not resist adding my two cents to the outpouring of commentary on Yahoo’s new decision to ban telecommuting.  Bottom line:  a lot of people think the ban is a really bad idea, especially for working mothers and fathers.  Jennifer Glass offers great insight about the ban on this blog.  Only time will tell whether the telecommuting ban will increase innovation and quality at Yahoo.  And actually, we might not be able to tell that at all; the media attention brought on by this announcement may be enough to increase Yahoo’s profits!

My take on the matter is slightly different:  it’s about the scrutiny the public is placing on Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo.

When she was named Yahoo CEO, Mayer became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.  She also became the first pregnant CEO, announcing her pregnancy on the same day she was hired at Yahoo.  When Mayer took the lead at Yahoo, this brought the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to 20.  Clearly female CEOs, especially ones who are young mothers, are pretty unique.  Mayer is most certainly what Rosabeth Moss Kanter described as a token (someone who make up less than 15% of a group) in her 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation and elsewhere

Unfortunately, Kanter’s nearly 40 year old observations of what might happen to token female leaders at work are spot on in the case of Marissa Mayer. Token female leaders, Kanter explained, are subject to intense scrutiny from colleagues and supervisors, their images and actions are overly characterized by stereotypes, and their failures are made more salient and attributed to their group membership (i.e., being a woman).

Kanter also explained that while men at work are often only evaluated on their work-related skill and experience, women tokens are often evaluated in terms of how nurturing and emotional they appear to be.   When female tokens display initiative and drive, attributes we largely consider appropriate for a leader, they are perceived as aggressive and negatively labeled. Moreover, when a token female leader makes any decision that appears to thwart the progress of subordinate women (e.g., a ban on telecommuting, a practice widely used by working mothers), their decision is not simply evaluated on policy grounds alone, but also about the message they are sending to all women and they are said to be attempting to legitimate their power position and distancing themselves from cultural stigmas placed on gender at work.

Public reaction to Mayer’s ban on telecommuting is in line with what we might expect from a successful, visible token female Fortune 500 CEO.  People have had plenty of negative things to say about her decision.  Websites like mashable.com have even asked the public to comment on the CEO’s decision (“Do you think Mayer made the right decision [regarding her telecommuting decision]? Join the conversation…) implying that somehow the public knows workplace strategy better! Employees are also now finding fault with her hiring standards; she requires that all candidates meet with her and allegedly, her hiring standards are too rigorous. Criticism is beginning to percolate around her emphasis on recruits’ academic pedigree and field of study.

It will be interesting to see what aspect of her job will be criticized next.  Maybe that she should not provide free food at meetings or provide employees with iPhones?  Both moves potentially blur the boundary between work and home and encourage a culture of around the clock work, two things that violate assumptions about what is “appropriate” for a female leader to ask of employees.

I will leave it to the workplace strategy experts to mull over her telecommuting decision and hiring techniques.  I think work scholars need to ask a different set of questions:  Where is the outrage with male CEOs who limit flexible work options, especially ones proven to increase revenue, boost employee morale, and reduce turnover?   Best Buy CEO, Hubert Joly, recently announced he is limiting its successful Results Only Work Environment initiative that gave employees the freedom to work from any location as long as they got their work done.  At the end of 2012, Bank of America (CEO Brian Moynihan) is also limiting its workplace flexibility program but with little outrage from the public up to this point.

Why don’t we publicly criticize the hiring strategies of the 480 male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?  For example, why don’t we question the long standing practice of white men who focus on the academic credentials and university pedigrees of new recruits, a practice that advantages white men?  Lauren Rivera’s research has found that those making hiring decisions in elite U.S. professional service firms relied heavily on educational credentials to solicit and screen job applicants.  Elite employers did not necessarily value the content of candidate’s education, she explained, but rather the prestige of their education.   In fact, employers tended to privilege job candidates who possessed an affiliation with what she calls a super elite (e.g., top 4) university.  What is more, employers tended to attribute superior cognitive, cultural, and moral qualities to candidates with super elite ties, regardless of their actual performance once there.

What do Kanter’s insights mean for Mayer and other female CEOs, especially those who also happen to be tokens along other lines (i.e., race/ethnicity, age, parental status)?  My guess is more of the same challenge to their leadership ability, hyper-analysis of their policy change (especially any policy seen as affecting members of their status groups), and frequent scrutiny of work-related decisions.  I also imagine we’ll be hearing more about “Queen Bee syndrome” or when a woman in charge treats subordinate women harshly simply because they are women.

And by the way, in case you had not heard, according to the New York Times, Yahoo’s ban on working from home is somewhat less dramatic than the public has made it to be.  The ban supposedly targets the roughly 200 employees who work from home full time. Yahoo managers have told employees that they can work remotely when necessary, for example when they have a sick child or have to “stay home for the cable guy.”

In closing, it is depressing how closely we still allow ourselves to exhibit the perceptual biases about gender at work that Kanter described in the late 1970s. We really should know better by now.

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