It's complicated: tech turnarounds, feminism, and Marissa Mayer


I marched in my first Equal Rights Amendment parade in the 70s at the age of four. I think Mom raised me right. 

Decades later, Silicon Valley has taught me to love product innovation and great workplace conditions. I remain a reasonably well-credentialed feminist and feel lucky to work where I do.

I feel even luckier to be married to a remarkable woman who excels in the tech sector. She's designed Web products for Yahoo! and now does the same for Google, having touched millions of users worldwide. I'm proud to hold her in high professional esteem. She's an amazing mother. She also enjoys amazing workplaces. It is exhausting to watch her so I know she gets exhausted sometimes. Google culture includes being in the office pretty much every day.

I wrote this post while my wife was on a two-week trip participating in user research in Brazil and New York. She had never been away from our daughter before for more than a few nights. The week before she left she cooked about ten meals and froze them. She cut, washed, and bagged fresh organic vegetables. She told her girlfriends she was leaving and--all of them mothers--texted me to make sure our three-year-old daughter and I were okay.

One of them cooked three more meals. Another included some replenishment veggies in her own shopping trip and dropped them by the house. All are are directorish level high performers at Facebook, Google, and others.

Innovation requires presence.

The tech world doesn't experiment only to produce new sites and gadgets. Employers roll out a dizzying number of perquisites, benefits, and flexible work arrangements to keep people who build technology executing thoughtfully and quickly. There are plenty of studies that showlocation-flexible workforces perform better

That said, in-person collaboration is often necessary for rapid-fire creativity and execution in tech. There is a "stand-up" meeting in Agile Scrum where it is a pretty good idea to be present. People who phone into work are unable able to sketch on the whiteboard or cluster someone else's Post-it Notes in a new way. Engineers learn better and faster programming by walking over to others' desks to futz around in the code. The technology that helps us work from home is amazing, sure. It hasn't replaced face time for pursuing breakthroughs.

Yahoo!'s CEO came under fire for implementing a new workplace policy requiring telecommuters to come back to the office. She's been lampooned by flexible workplace advocates in the press, blogosphere, and Twitter. I even had fun retweeting Aaron Levie, part-time wag and full-time CEO of Box.

Yahoo!'s Mayer has also been accused of an antifeminist hypocrisy because she recently built a private nursery for her infant son on the Yahoo! campus, then soon after called Yahoo! moms (and others) back into the office. I'm unconvinced Mayer is a deserving target of feminist anger.

Well, maybe a teensy bit. And it shouldn't be directed at the new policy, which was probably a decision based on employee VPN data. Mayer is a famously nerdy, data-driven CEO. This blog post started out as a full-throated defense of Mayer. During the exercise of writing it, I remained a defender of Mayer's workforce policies for Yahoo! but critiqued her for her poor definition of feminism. More on that after we a bit about tech companies and how they thrive.

Let's consider that turning around Yahoo! is an insanely difficult job. Statistically, a tiny minority of troubled tech companies ever pull that off. Successful Silicon Valley giants like AppleFacebook, and Google are building grand campuses where employee interactions and physical presence are a primary design intention of their world-renowned architects. She has to pull off the same employee collaboration dynamic with no such campus development resources.

Ms. Mayer is competing. How she goes about it is wholly her decision.

I think many reacted without reading the memo notifying employees of the policy. (It came from Yahoo!'s HR department, not Mayer). Others may not have fully understood the importance of in-person collaboration in tech products.

The memo isn't about removing privileges. It's an all hands on deck message that calls for "speed and quality" and to "use your best judgment" when it comes to living in a household.  It is a reasonable request from a company trying to make it back to where it was in the heady early days of the Internet.

Someone who has survived the third trimester is a far better messenger of "come to the office to work" than the last several CEOs. Imagine how the message might have gone over had it been filtered through a manly pushbroom mustache.

If a male CEO had built a nursery and changed telecommuter policy there's a fair chance he'd be lauded for exemplary fatherhood while he put in the extra hours to right the foundering corporate ship.

Feminism's beneficiaries should claim the mantle.

Where is Yahoo!'s CEO culpable to feminist distaste? She may not fully grasp the historical arc of feminism. In the video below she seems to mistake a caricatured perception of feminists for the message of the movement. Listen to her as she lists what she believes in. It is a decent if truncated list of feminism's tenets.

The clip is from "Makers: Women who Make America" which aired on PBS last Tuesday. It's definitely worth watching. Mayer, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, and eBay's and HP's Meg Whitman all make compelling appearances in the third episode. It makes me wonder if Ms. Mayer watched it again--especially the first two episodes--she would answer her interviewer's question exactly the same way.


(Mayer) may not fully grasp the historical arc of feminism.

She's a product of the movement. Under forty years old, she marched into Yahoo! like a nerdy Joan d'Arc, gave birth, and now seems to be turning her company around. She was already wildly successful with Google, hence her ability to afford that on-site nursery.

Women like my mom marched for women like Mayer, but it wasn't about militancy and negative energy. It may have been radical for its time but seems more normal in ours. My mom told me some pretty sketchy stories about what it was like to be a woman in the 60s, then the 70s...then the 80s.

From bizarre conservative outbursts late in the 2012 presidential campaign, outright hostile workplaces--for which there are legislative protections for women--to the sheer tonnage of accrued daily mansplaining, there's plenty unfinished business. Maybe this post qualifies. (Please accept my apologies.)

Maybe Yahoo! moms can at least take comfort that one of them is working hard to right the corporate ship--and that she hasn't said anything about the policy being permanent. 

Mayer deserves to be there at Yahoo! and is entitled to require her employees to be there as well. There's more to be done and Yahoo!'s CEO is walking the same tightrope as per professional forebears. I hope she leads and inspires Yahoos like the very positive movement that helped her arrive.

After all, as a former employee, my wife is a shareholder. My financial well-being is tied to hers.