Yahoo!’s (YHOO) Marissa Mayer has learned a painful, early lesson: If you’re a female CEO, especially in Silicon Valley, prepare to have every business decision scrutinized and greeted with media hysteria—with references to your personal life and your reproductive status thrown in for good measure.
The first distressing assumption to emerge after Mayer made a change to Yahoo’s telecommuting policy is the idea that “working from home” is code for taking care of your kids and trying to work at the same time. Both are important and all-consuming, and anyone who has ever tried to so much as make a phone call with a small child nearby knows that the idea of doing them at once is insane. It does save on commuting time, though, which is something both men and women appear to appreciate, with some studies showing that more men work from home.
The even more revealing thing is the way that Mayer’s decision to ask Yahoo employees who currently telecommute to start to come in to the office regularly has been received, with shock and outrage, as if she’d decreed that staff members sacrifice their pets on the steps of the company’s Sunnyvale (Calif.) headquarters. The deluge reached its peak on Wednesday with a column in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd: “Mayer has a nursery next to the executive suite. But not everyone has it so sweet.” The piece has garnered 665 comments at last count.
The tiny sisterhood of women CEOs who have made it to the top of technology companies (and non-tech companies for that matter) can attest to the difficulty of running a huge corporation when even the most banal strategic move is picked apart so obsessively. Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo and Autodesk (ADSK), enjoyed similar treatment while she was CEO of Yahoo, most notably inviting ridicule for her un-ladylike habit of dropping the f-bomb. Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) from 1999 to 2005, confronted constant peanut-gallery analysis of her hair and her mannerisms by a business press that both glorified her and tore her down. Like Mayer, these women were trying to turn around complicated companies badly in need of new ideas.
No one knows whether the decision to require all Yahoo employees to work in an office will prove to be positive or negative for the company; it may be personally disastrous for some of the individuals affected and the best thing that ever happened to others. But if one of the hundreds of men running American companies had made a similar move, it’s unlikely that anyone would have even noticed.