I was as excited as anyone when Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while in the third trimester of her pregnancy. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that this woman would not advocate for a family-friendly workplace at a minimum.
So of course, I was also as shocked as anyone to find she has done just the opposite. Not only did she take a mere two weeks for her own maternity leave and build a nursery attached to her office, but she’s taken the additional step of actually removing the flex time policy for the entire company, a policy many working parents depend on.
Some have commented that this would hardly be news if Mayer were a man, and of course that’s true. Women in these positions are still forerunners in ways that men are not. That’s simply the sad truth of our era, when half of our workforce is vastly underrepresented in positions of leadership. But it’s not just an issue of our expectations for Mayer being dashed. She never claimed to represent women or families any more than a male CEO would have. She does in fact set a precedent for women and families, whether she intends to or not, but this only points to a deeper underlying issue here—confusing a woman in leadership with a woman leader.
Mayer could have been a leader, a trail blazer, but to do so means to actually leave a trail behind you that others can and want to follow. Like so many women who fight and sacrifice to make it to the top, she seems unwilling to make it so that other women do not have to fight so much, to sacrifice so much. “If I can do it, so can they” is the attitude. The real question, of course, is not whether other women can work harder and sacrifice more than men to achieve the same. It’s whether they should have to.
There’s another dynamic at play here as well, the idea that being “one of the guys” makes a woman special. To do anything to make it so that other women can achieve the same without the obstacles is to take away one’s privileged position as that token remarkable woman among the men. The irony, of course, is that she had the opportunity to stand out as a remarkable woman period, among women and men.
Instead of leading the way toward a more progressive corporate policy toward families, she’s acting like a woman who has something to prove—to men. She’ll prove that having a baby won’t get in her way as CEO. She’ll prove that she can be just as tough and just as able to make unpopular decisions as any man. But her decision is more than just unpopular, more than detrimental to women and families—it’s bad for business.
Study after study consistently shows that allowing employees some flexibility with where and when they work, focusing only on results rather than micromanaging how, when, and where those results are produced, leads to happier and more productive employees. This research is pervasive enough that although it may not convince a corporate machine to change its policies overnight, it should at the very least stand in the way of a company going backwards.
Perhaps there is more to this decision than meets the eye, but at the moment, I don’t see Mayer breaking new ground for Yahoo much less for women and families. Not even her own.
Image by Fortune Live Media.