Saturday, March 02, 2013

Working from Home, Leaning In and All That Jazz

I should be in bed right now- I'm soloing this weekend while Mr. Snarky visits one of his best friends from his university days, who happens to be in a somewhat nearby location. I am glad he gets to see his friend, but wow, I'm tired. If I had to solo every weekend, I suspect we would not do quite so many activities. Also, tomorrow is likely to start before 6 a.m. and will involve two birthday parties.

But... I have a lot of thoughts about Marissa Mayer and the recent decision by Yahoo to require employees to work from the office, and not the home. And I have a lot of thoughts about the treatment Sheryl Sandberg is getting in the press in advance of the release of her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I feel motivated to share my thoughts, motivated enough to stay up tonight and write a serious post on a weekend (something I rarely do). But I am strangely unmotivated to pull them together into a solid, coherent post.

So instead, here are some lightly edited comments on the topic that I have posted on other people's blogs, with some extra thoughts and bonus links at the end. One of the awesome things about being a blogger and not an essayist is that I can get away with this sort of thing. You get what you pay for, you know.

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First, about working from home, from my comment on Mommyshort's post on the topic:

When my first child was born, I was working at a large contracting company. I had an office, but most of my work was with people on the opposite coast, so no one cared AT ALL if I showed up to the office. When I was coming back from maternity leave, they all assumed I'd want to work from home. The ones who were parents assumed I'd have in home help. The others had some cute idea about babies sleeping all day, except for when they were awake looking quietly cute on a play mat. (This delusion is how humans are convinced to reproduce, so I don't enlighten them.)

I told them they were all insane and came back to the office. I lived in a small apartment at the time. My daughter would have smelled me and demanded me, because that's the type of baby she was, and that was abundantly clear to me by the time I was going back to work (she was 3 months old when I went back part time, 4 months old when I went back full time).

But, I know that my situation is not the same as everyone else's situation. I'm told that some people's babies really do sleep all the time. Now that my oldest is in Kindergarten, I can also see how it would be possible to work from home with her present and actually produce some work.

So as a manager, I take each person's situation individually. Some people (and some jobs) are excellent candidates for working from home. There is one person who reports to me whom I rarely see in person, and she does incredible work and I would throw a tantrum worthy of my 3 year old if she ever tried to leave. I have other people who work remotely most of the time but come into the office for meetings one or two days per week. My own job, though? Nah, I have to be in the office for the gazillion meetings I attend every single day (why did I go into management again?) and to be available for the other employees I have who need face time with me. I could maybe swing a one day per week at home arrangement (and I would be super productive- I'm good at internal motivation) but the hassle of setting that up doesn't seem worth it, particularly since I need to pick my younger daughter up from a day care 5 minutes away from my office.

Therefore, I'm disappointed with Yahoo's new blanket policy. I think it is short-sighted and lets managers get away with being poor managers. I think that if some people were not performing as remote workers, their managers should have fixed that IMMEDIATELY. I know it sucks to call people out on this sort of thing, but that is why you are the manager. You have to do this stuff. Grow up and do it.

But- Yahoo's policy is hardly unique, even in the tech world, so I don't think it deserves the fuss it is getting. And there are plenty of tech companies with more enlightened policies, and they are using this as a recruiting opportunity. Etsy, for instance. (Which makes the third really impressive thing I've heard about Etsy recently. It is a shame my skills are in science informatics and not shopping informatics, or I would totally look at them as an employer.) The thing is, it is damned hard to find good tech talent and I think any of Yahoo's remote workers who are really good will be able to find a company that will let them continue with their remote arrangement. The ones who aren't good... well, they will either raise their game or suffer the consequences.

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Next, about the treatment of both Mayer and Sandberg in these discussions, from a comment on Blue Milk's post:

I have been watching the treatment Sandberg’s been getting and thinking to myself: “And people wonder why Marissa Mayer refuses to call herself a feminist?” Neither Sandberg nor Mayer is a perfect person. But none of us are. Would any of our lives stand up to the scrutiny that these two women get? Personally, I find Sandberg much more inspirational than Mayer, but that does not mean Mayer deserves the treatment she is getting from people.

Take the furor over the recent Yahoo decision to require all their employees to work from the office- a lot of other companies, even in high tech, have similar policies. Google doesn’t have the policy, but has a culture that strongly encourages long hours in the office. Yet Mayer is the only CEO who is getting excoriated about it. I don’t agree with her move, because I think it is short-sighted and unlikely to solve the problem she is trying to solve. But so much of the discussion of it is so obviously sexist against Mayer that I have mostly tuned it out, even though productivity and changing our workplace cultures to promote a healthier work-life arrangement for everyone is something I am passionate about.

This is not to say that I don’t think there are fair criticisms to be leveled at Mayer, just that I think we are holding her to a standard we don’t hold male CEOs to. We won’t defeat sexism until we demand change from male leaders, not just female ones.

Similarly, there are fair criticisms to be leveled at Sandberg, but it is unfair to expect her to tackle all feminist concerns. No one can be an activist on all the problems we face at once. She admits that she is only addressing one part of the problem. Personally, I’m glad that she has made time and energy to work on the problems she does address. I am nowhere near as powerful as she is at work, and I don’t often have the energy after dealing with my own concerns to go out and advocate to fix the larger problems. In fact, I just wrote on my blog this week that the flak I get when I write about being a working mother even on my little blog has made me steer clear of the subject. I admire Sandberg for being willing to stand up to the judgement and criticism and keep speaking out.

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Here are links to two articles that express my opinions better than I do:

Jessica Valenti on Sheryl Sandberg.

The Economist on how forcing Yahoos to the office is a symptom of Yahoo's problems, not the solution.

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And here are my closing thoughts:

I am really, really, REALLY sick of people tearing into Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg on work-life issues, but giving Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and all the other male executives a free pass.

Should senior managers care about enabling their employees to have good work-life arrangements? Of course. Should they try to ensure that the ability to pursue a rewarding career and be a mother is something that is available to all women in their organizations? Definitely.  ALL senior managers should care about these things, not just the high profile female ones. ALL senior managers should be held accountable for this stuff, and not just because decent people should care about the impact of their actions on others, but because getting these things right is good for the bottom line. And yes, there is research that shows that, but no, I'm not going to take the time to go dig it up tonight (some of the research about productivity is linked to on this page, though).

Also... we should remember that some of the underlying problems may be best addressed in the public sector, not the private one. Issues with commute times, availability of high quality affordable child care, and school-work schedule mismatches are problems that could perhaps be solved more efficiently by trying to act through government, rather than leaving it up to individual companies to figure out. Not all companies have the resources of Facebook or Yahoo, after all.

So sure, let's discuss how best to arrange our work cultures to promote productivity. Let's discuss the fact that for many women, the idea of leaning in or out is laughable- they are running as hard as they can to keep from getting flattened in this economy and have no option to ease up. But let's stop laying these problems at the feet of two women and letting a host of men in similar positions off the hook. Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg have difficult, high pressure jobs, and single-handedly fixing the problems of all working parents is not in either of their job descriptions.

OK, I feel better now. Rant over. I can go to sleep.

28 comments:

  1. I'm tired of the double standard towards female leaders, too.

    But, I think it is fair to ask if someone who has the clout to build a nursery next to her office and the means to pay for a 1:1 nanny at the office can tell ALL employees that they can no longer telecommute, even some of the time.

    It's outrageously expensive to live in Silicon Valley. Many if not most Yahoo employees do not earn enough to live close to work. Most employees telecommute part of the time to keep their weekly commute times to a reasonable level.

    Furthermore, it is unfair to compare Yahoo to Google because Yahoo does not provide commuter buses with VPN wifi. Google commute buses are mobile offices and commute time is part of the normal workday for many Google employees.

    Does Yahoo have enough desks for everyone? Don't they "hot desk"? Her employees don't even all have offices, much less daycare right next door to their offices.

    She's the boss and she does have business authority. She has no moral authority. Lead by example. She failed big time.

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    1. I am really uncomfortable with pinning my hopes for the solutions to these problems on business. So while I may be hoping that a lot of Yahoo employees find a new employer with better policies (and I am), I also know that a lot of small employers just can't afford things like shuttle buses with wifi. It is great that Google does that, but I'd rather the government/community work to solve the underlying problem of lack of affordable housing and lack of good, rapid public transit. Allowing working from home is only a partial solution to that. Not all jobs are a good fit for it, and neither are all employees.

      I am happy to criticize Yahoo's decision based on business reasons- as I said in the post, I think it is a bad decision. But I am disgusted by the difference in how Mayer is being treated in the press vs. the male CEOs.

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    2. Alexicographer8:26 PM

      It's far from perfect but I do in fact ride a public bus to work (~20 minutes, in principle accessible from my home via another bus but in reality I drive to the bus stop) that has wifi. My employer (large) pays for my bus pass. So, yes, there are ways to start to address some of these issues that involve public-private partnerships and/or the public sector (I could buy my own bus pass).

      Though the wifi on this particular bus is woefully slow.

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  2. Amen, Cloud.

    And re: badmomgoodmom's question... I agree with the folks on another blog post (http://agaishanlife.com/2013/03/friday-rant-telecommuting-and-business-decisions/ ) who reframed the in-office daycare as: just because most CEOs have in-office bars and some have private jets, does that make it unfair that they do nor provide alcoholic beverages and transportation to their workers? CEOs get perks that regular employees don't. (Also someone pointed out that she, not Yahoo, is paying for that particular perk.) Whether or not employees should get a perk that the CEO gets is a business decision, not a fairness decision. If we want fairness, then, as Cloud says, we need government intervention.

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  3. That Jessica Valenti article is fantastic.

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  4. Another referral- Hush has a couple of really good comments on Laura Vanderkam's post on the topic, about how Yahoo is aiming for innovation more than productivity, and that may require a different sort of work environment:
    http://lauravanderkam.com/2013/03/friday-links-work-home-edition/

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    1. I was going to dig up Hush's comments too and post here, but I couldn't remember which blog I'd seen her post them on! And I think she's spot on with that comment-- the studies done are not on innovation, but something with easily measured productivity (a call-center). The email itself talks about innovation as well, not productivity.

      Hush-- you should write your own post! For, you know, posterity.

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    2. Thanks - done!

      http://husheveryone.blogspot.com/2013/03/on-innovation-and-yahoos-telework-ban.html

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  5. I think I love you. Thank you for writing this, all I've been able to articulate is how angry I am. I am angry with MM but also with the lot of them and you articulated the thoughts bouncing around in my head. If you don't mind I'd like to link to you on FB.

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    1. Sure, go ahead! In general, if I pushed the "post" button, I am OK with the post getting shared wherever you want.

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  6. Yes, I did notice the irony/absurdity in that request.

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    1. Ha! I have nothing against Facebook, really. I don't care for the way they handle privacy policy, and between that and the fact that I think it would suck way too much time away from me, I've just never felt the need to join.

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  7. Amen! It makes me livid to read feminist comments attacking Sandberg, a fellow feminist, for daring to write a book directed at the problems faced by college educated, largely white, women. I felt the same after that article in the Atlantic started making the rounds. I loved the article, and I like Sandberg's ideas. No, she is not speaking for all women; yes, it's true her book may elide the experiences and needs of working class women (although she also talks about structural inequalities and leave policies that affect all women). Jill @ feministe wrote in support of SS, and most of the comments were so aggravating - she's not speaking for me, she didn't write the book that I wanted her to, how dare she! So now unless a woman is talking about all women everywhere in everything she writes, she's not allowed to speak publicly? I tried to write in a say, how about we view SS as *one voice* contributing to *one part* of a multifaceted conversation, and we can also listen to other voices talking about other aspects? It sometimes makes me understand clearly why people don't like women/social justice movements. There is a lot of policing and not a lot compassion/trying to get where someone is coming from (ironically).

    I agree with you, Cloud, about the public sector, and frankly that's why I'm so discouraged about the whole thing, and so pessimistic about anything changing. If we have to fight to the death to get the Violence against women act renewed (because godforbid we protect Native American women from violence!) I don't see paid family leave on the horizon. I've always thought it was absurd to expect companies to provide 6 months + of paid family leave. IMO, that's what gov't should do, as opposed to the private sector. But in the current political situation, there is no space for the public sector, so women and children are kind of screwed.

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    1. One thing I'd like to ask the people who are angry with Sandberg's book is: is her advice WRONG for women of color and women from less-advantaged backgrounds? Or is it just a lot harder to follow her advice if you aren't in the same socioeconomic group as she is? If it is flat out bad advice for women who don't look like her, then I think there are more reasonable grounds for criticism, particularly if she isn't sensitive to that.

      From what I can tell, though, the concern is more that if you aren't starting from a fair amount of class privilege you'll have a much harder time following her advice, but that if you manage to follow the advice, it is likely to be good advice. In which case, I agree with you: hers is one voice among what should be many. If the problem is that the other voices aren't getting heard, let's work on that. We can do that without shouting down Sandberg's voice.

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    2. I thought there was a great response to the Mayer controversy at a personal blog that dealt with the Mayer issue in just that way (using these stories as a way of opening up conversation about the working poor, rather than attacking Mayer). You might like it:
      http://domesticpolitics.wordpress.com/

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  8. Anonymous4:53 PM

    You said it all in that last sentence :)

    "Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg have difficult, high pressure jobs, and single-handedly fixing the problems of all working parents is not in either of their job descriptions"

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  9. Anonymous7:10 PM

    badmomgoodmom wrote: "She's the boss and she does have business authority. She has no moral authority. Lead by example. She failed big time."

    I couldn't agree more! And yes, Cloud, let's hold all CEOs accountable. But Mayer doesn't get a free pass from me because she's a woman, or because CEOs before her haven't been held accountable by others. Really, I should hold my tongue out of a sense of fellowship and fairness to a woman who has publicly described me and my fellow feminists as "militant" people with "chips their shoulders" that she just can't relate to? I don't think so....

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    1. I think if you read my post again you'll notice that I didn't say you shouldn't criticize Mayer. I said that if you're going to criticize Mayer, you should also criticize Brin and Page and a host of other male executives who have made similar policies and whose opinion on feminism is never queried.

      I disagree with Mayer's statements about feminism and feminists. However, I think I understand where they come from, and I suspect you do not. I do not mean that in a mean way- just that I think that the people who really understand feminist theory and history and the people who really understand the mindset that comes from studying engineering and working in tech are two largely non-overlapping sets. Of course, I could be wrong about your background, but since you've chosen to post completely anonymously, I don't have much to go on.

      If Mayer's ignorant comments about feminism were all people were criticizing, I'd think we'd missed a chance to learn something via a less vituperative dialogue, but nothing worse. But that isn't all people are criticizing, not by a long shot. In fact, the criticisms I was thinking of when I wrote this post were completely unrelated to her opinions on feminism- I was thinking of how she has been treating in the mainstream press, not in feminist media, which I will confess I largely do not read, because it largely seems to dislike women like me. And why put myself through that?

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    2. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/starting-to-understand-the-feminist-backlash/

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    3. Anonymous7:53 PM

      @Cloud: Well, I was 2 yrs behind Mayer at Stanford and worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for 8 yrs; amazingly, this did not prevent me from becoming a feminist. I think Mayer knows exactly what she’s doing when she disavows the feminist movement, from which she has benefited enormously. But that should come as no surprise to anyone; other women before her have done the same thing. It’s too bad that some people are so hard up for role models these days that they can’t bear to do anything except turn a blind eye to this. Shame on them and shame on Mayer!

      @N&M: The post you linked to has nothing to do with my comment. To put it in your terms: Mayer is “failing the feminist sisterhood” by perpetuating ugly, hackneyed stereotypes about feminists.

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    4. It has to do with Cloud's comment.

      We don't allow "Anonymous" to comment on our blog, btw. If they don't give a name, we assign one.

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    5. And reading lower, assuming you're the same anonymous, yes it does... because she'd also be failing the feminist sisterhood by not achieving. You're holding her to an impossible standard. And one that you're not holding, say, Donald Trump to.

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  10. Anonymous10:57 AM

    I find the controversy odd. Everyone is acting as if the Yahoo decision is a) permanent and b) sets some general trend that everyone will be pressured to follow. Mayer has been put in a position to rapidly turn around Yahoo before it fails and I'm sure will find it easier to create a new corporate environment if everyone is actually present. The story about her nursery is also silly. A CEO has unique perks and unique challenges: the hours are so long she may not see her baby if it isn't in the next room sometimes. If she expects the same hours from her employees--that's when it get hypocritical.

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  11. I get annoyed with the carping at successful women for reasons of privilege, etc. When Donald Trump writes a book on success, no one says "well, that's easy for him to say because someone else is cleaning his bathrooms" or "of course he's successful because he can afford a nanny." People who reach the top often have interesting things to say about what it takes to reach the top. Sometimes it's helpful to listen or read without judging, and if you decide it's wrong for you, fine. But if a strategy is wrong for you, that doesn't make someone who used it, ipso facto, a bad person. Yes, I'm referring to the Sheryl Sandberg backlash, but this mindset is out there a lot.

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    1. Agreed! with emphasis :)

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  12. Thanks to N&M for linking to me up there.

    My post was already going on forever, otherwise I would have added the point that, in fact, I disagree with MM's views on feminism but I can see where she's coming from when I see contingents of feminists jumping up and down on people's heads declaring that they aren't good enough men/ women/ whatever.

    That doesn't define feminism for me because I AM a feminist, and I have friends who are feminists and we care about equality and fairness and don't tear people apart for not being in lockstep with us, but the fact remains, there is some percentage of the feminist population that does behave as though there is a chip on their shoulder and do behave militantly. Similarly, there are other social movements with groups that behave in that manner, and those more vocal of the group tend to dominate the meaning/name.

    At the end of the day: my disagreement with her personal views doesn't affect what I think about her business decision.

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    1. Anonymous7:40 PM

      “Similarly, there are other social movements with groups that behave in that manner, and those more vocal of the group tend to dominate the meaning/name.”

      Only if the moderates turn their back on the movement. Look, there’s no denying that women are where they are today because once upon a time, there were women brave enough to be militant and point out the inequities, and that made them look like they had a chip on their shoulder. Women in the workplace today have it a lot better because of these “militants,” and people shouldn’t conveniently forget about that when they think it’s no longer needed. And this goes double for extremely successful women today. Yeah, I expect more from the rich and powerful (and female, in this case) than I do from the just-barely-getting-by -- get over it! Although asking that Mayer not result to ugly, hackneyed stereotypes when talking about feminists is really not so much to ask.

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  13. @Anonymous who is mad that Mayer disavows feminism- It really would be easier if you'd pick a pseudonym. I think you've posted on prior posts about Mayer, and I would have acknowledged the fact that you clearly do understand the engineering/tech world in my comment if I'd had any idea you were the same anonymous. You don't have to link to anything to have a pseudonym, just pick a handle that you'll post under. I suspect some of your reaction to this post is colored by my earlier post, and the conversation would have advanced better if I'd known that.

    But anyway... Literally no one here is saying that they agree with Mayer's stance on feminism. The most any of us are saying is that we understand where it comes from but we disagree and consider ourselves feminists.

    Personally, I am hugely grateful for the activists who came before me. Hugely. But I wonder what they would think about the strain of feminism out there today that seems just itching to pounce on any woman who is successful in business and doesn't do things exactly how they think she should do them. This is a ridiculous and impossible standard for any human being to meet, let alone one who also has to answer to shareholders and a board. I suspect that some of this ugliness comes from a distrust business and business leaders in general, but that is just a suspicion, and is not backed by data. Regardless, people who act like this really shouldn't be surprised if that means that women like Mayer disavow them. In my opinion, people who act like this do the larger cause of feminism a disservice, because they get a lot of press and associate the word "feminism" with impossible demands that anyone who's spent much time in a for profit environment will recognize as rather ridiculous. But that's another argument altogether.

    So back to the point of the post: what does Mayer's stance on feminism have to do with her business decision on telecommuting? That, after all, was the main gist of the portion of my post that was about her. Feminist or not, she had to make that decision based on her business needs. She is running a business not a social movement, after all.

    Also, no one said anything against holding Mayer to a higher standard than people with less privilege and power. In fact, no one said anything about that at all. I said she should be held to the same standard as male CEOs, and I stand by that. I absolutely reject the idea that I should be held to a higher standard than my male colleagues when it comes to feminist issues. Equality is an issue for everyone to address, and we all answer to the same standards. There is no way I can get behind letting the men off the hook on this. I can see, and possibly support, the argument that the more powerful have an obligation to step up and do more... but doesn't that then support the idea that the male CEOs should be held to a HIGHER standard than Mayer, and not vice versa? After all, men still hold more power than women in our society.

    If you want to engage with any of the ideas I actually espoused in the post, I'm happy to continue this discussion. If you just want to talk about how disappointed you are that Mayer says she is not a feminist... well, I think there is nothing more to discuss there. Sure, I agree. I think she should read her history and show some more respect for the women who came before her. Are we good on this point now?

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