A Silicon Valley Twist on the Mommy Wars

Under the heading of “Only in Silicon Valley” comes a new salvo from the Mommy War Front.

For those who have been living under rocks for the last few days, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is eliminating what amounts to a sacred totem in high tech: working from home; and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has written a book which sends a message to many that women don’t take the hard assignments that lead to professional success because of personal aspirations (i.e. they want families and to just be a mom).

Everyone is lining up on this one, including me in my role as controller for McGrath/Power Public Relations.  Some pundits are quick to point out that Mayer built a nursery next to her office with her own money so she can spend time with her newborn.  In my opinion, Sandberg appears to be coming from the attitude of “I did it. What’s wrong with the rest of you?”

Both women look woefully out of touch with good reason.  Let’s start with their realities:

Both came from expensive Ivy League schools. Mayer taught  undergraduate computer programming  classes while studying  at Stanford.  Sandberg has an MBA from Harvard.  As the adage goes, when you start ahead you usually stay ahead. Both were fortunate to catch on with a little known start up called Google. In 2012 Sandberg’s net worth was $1.6 billion thanks to her hop to Facebook.  By comparison Mayer’s net worth is a mere $300 million.

Bottom line:  Sandberg and Mayer have the power to order their worlds any way they want them to be.  They have the power to impact the worlds of others, too.  This is particularly true in the case of Mayer.  Her decision to halt telecommuting will affect her employees’ lives in ways she will never have to deal with personally.

Would the media reaction have been as strong if Mayer and Sandberg were men instead of women?

In the case of Mayer I submit it is the old fashioned double standard.

I doubt we’d be talking about the disruption to employees’ lives and work-life balance if it had been a new male CEO who announced that in order save Yahoo! he needed his engineers to be on site.  He would have been applauded for thinking outside the box.  No one would have asked, “But what about the children?”  Instead the analysts would have responded with “Buy the stock!”

From a public relations perspective, Mayer would have come off better if she had made the announcement herself at an all hands meeting instead of using the human resources department to issue a memo that was leaked to AllThingsD creating a public relations nightmare. She could have acknowledged  that the policy would profoundly change employees’ personal lives.  She could have also offered more than the standard FSA  dependent care accounts that employees use to pay for family care.  What about an on-site daycare center or company matching? After all, she has her office nursery, which, by the way, just reinforces how special she is compared to other Yahoo! employees.

Instead we have Yahoo!’s official reaction to the ruckus outside the company.  “We don’t comment on internal policies.”  That always works well – just ask Applebee’s.

As for Sandberg, I believe she’s only guilty of having a viewpoint that is different than the majority of the population.  I doubt if Sandberg’s opinion would have stirred the water at all if Steve Jobs had said it about anyone, regardless of gender.

Many women are decrying Sandberg’s opinion because we expect more enlightened thinking from our female leaders. She’s not supposed be blaming  women for career shortfalls due to the fact that they want to have a family life as well as a work life.  But to me she is, painting women as a group with a broad brush of old, tired stereotypes.  And she’s doing it from the perspective of one who has the control and power that $1.6 billion brings.  If she’s late for a meeting because she’s driving the kids to school, then people will wait for her.  It’s not going to show up negatively in her performance review that she took off  too many sick days to care for her aging parent.

As a working woman and a working mother I’ve seen all perspectives.  I’ve been an employee, worked part-time, been a stay-at-home mother, and an entrepreneur.  I was one of two women in my business school class.  When I started my career there were no women in engineering and women in finance were rare.  I am pleased that women in Mayer’s and Sandberg’s generation take for granted that no door is closed to a woman simply because she is a woman.  However, I am dismayed that there doesn’t seem to be anyone (like their own mothers) reminding  them that one  thing hasn’t changed yet.

There are still too few female executives functioning at their level and they are role models whether they want to be or not.  Sandberg and Mayer should know they  are scrutinized more simply because they are women in a male dominated field. They are naïve if they think otherwise.  Both have been around Silicon Valley long enough to see what happened to other women who make public mistakes.  Remember Carly Fiorina and Carol Bartz?  Mayer had to have known the memo would get out; there was significant coverage when she gave employees smartphones.   Sandberg’s comments seem timed to promote her book and her “brand” not help other working women, from my perspective.

Marissa and Sheryl, it might be a good time to have lunch with your moms.  They can provide you with some perspective.

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