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Schultz: Judge Marissa Mayer by her job, not her gender

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is abolishing the company’s work-at-home policy and ordering everyone to show up at the office.

Her decision has sparked intense and often nasty debate, with Mayer usually landing on the losing end. Many women, in particular, sound betrayed after daring to expect more from such a high-profile female boss. How could she?

I understand the special brand of heartbreak brought on by women who end up acting like the male jerks they replaced. However, I don’t feel this way about Mayer. This is no surprise coming from Mayer. It is an issue of arrogance, not gender, forged through the myopia of privilege.

Last July, I wrote a column about Mayer after she was hired at Yahoo. Initially, I was so excited to see this young, talented – and pregnant! – woman become the new face of a Fortune 500 company. Then I found this online clip of an interview with her for “Makers,” a series sponsored by PBS and AOL:

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. ... I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions. But I don’t ... have sort of the militant drive and ... the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think ‘feminism’ has become, in many ways, a more negative word. ... There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there’s more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy.”

Coincidentally, this same interview showed up again just this week in the outstanding PBS show titled “Makers: Women Who Make America.” The show was a feast of interviews with the grand dames of the feminist movement, and it aired just days after the Yahoo announcement. In this context, Mayer’s comments, toward the end of the show, felt like the ultimate smack-down: My success has nothing to do with you broads, OK?

So I’m not surprised that Mayer feels no obligation to look out for the working mothers at her company. I say this as a driven but nonmilitant feminist with no chip on her shoulder.

Yes, Mayer is a woman, but her decision to change Yahoo’s policy of flexible work schedules affects men and women almost equally. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly as many men as women work at home. The Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit group that tracks the changing workforce, fleshes out more of the story behind the flextime statistics.

More men – 45 percent – report work-life conflict than women, at 35 percent. The institute also reports that when employees have “a high degree of work-life fit,” almost two times as many want to stay in their current jobs; four times as many are “highly engaged at work,” and two times as many are “in excellent health.”

There are often good reasons to require some employees to be in the office all the time and most employees to be there a couple of days a week. Even in this miraculous high-tech age, there’s no substitute for the spontaneous creativity of in-person, human-to-human contact. Not to mention the value of an occasional brawl. (That doesn’t just happen in newsrooms, right?)

“If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, told The New York Times. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

As with most things in life, balance is everything. It also helps to show you still have a heart. Even in the workplace. Especially in the workplace.

Soon after the news broke about Yahoo’s upcoming new policy, news organizations also started reporting that Mayer, who is a millionaire many times over, brings her baby to her office. He stays in the nursery, which she paid to have built for him.

That Mayer can’t see the message this telegraphs to her employees – that her family is more important than theirs – says nothing about her gender and everything about her willful disconnect from the real-life challenges facing not only those who work for her but also most of the rest of America.

Is Marissa Mayer acting like a woman? Well, she’s a woman, so the answer has to be yes. How many times do I have to say this: Women are not a monolithic group.

Usually, that’s a good thing. Occasionally, not so much.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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