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Katrina Alcorn Headshot

The Lesson of Marissa Mayer

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A whole lot of people are disappointed in Marissa Mayer.

We pinned our hopes on her ever so briefly last summer, when she was hired as the new CEO of Yahoo! while pregnant with her first child.

Maybe she would show the world that you could be a devoted parent and really, really good at your day job, too. Maybe her hire would spark a national dialogue about new, innovative ways of working that make it possible to balance work and parenthood. Maybe her example would bring about a type of trickle-down feminism, and workplace discrimination against mothers would start to disappear.

Or maybe not.

While Mayer was still pregnant, some of us were dismayed to learn she planned to take only a couple weeks of maternity leave. After the baby was born, others were irritated to hear her brag about her "easy" baby. It felt like she was thumbing her nose at those of us who needed more time off or didn't have "easy" babies.

But to criticize her seemed petty. Aren't the mommy wars supposed to be over? And anyway, it's not like Mayer was pretending to be Gloria Steinem. As you can see from the below video clip, she's made it clear to anyone who would listen that she's trying to run a tech company, not a women's movement.

WATCH: Marissa Mayer, 'I Don't Think I Would Consider Myself a Feminist'



Sure, she happens to be a new mom, and yes, the personal is political. But sometimes, the personal is also very personal. We thought it best to give her some space. Then, last week, after just a few months on the job, she announced Yahoo!'s new work-from-home policy, which can be summed up in four words: Don't work from home.




According to Kara Swisher at All Things D, the ban extends not only to employees who work from home exclusively, but also to those who work from home one or two days a week. Even the random day waiting for the cable guy is potentially detrimental to the new "spirit of collaboration" that Yahoo! intends to foster, according to the company memo.




I heard this news on the radio one recent morning, while tormenting myself about my own work-from-home dilemma. My husband was out of town on business. My five-year-old, who has never been officially diagnosed with asthma, had been having asthma-like symptoms. I'd just stayed home with him for two days, administering around-the-clock inhalers. He had improved considerably, and that morning I dropped him and his sister off at school.




I headed to my contract job in San Francisco filled with doubt. Was he really ready to be back at school? What if he had a breathing attack in class? Maybe I should work from home (our house is five minutes from the school) instead of going into the office, where I would be an hour away.




The company I'm working with has been absolutely fantastic about letting me work from home as-needed. But since a lot of my work happens in meetings, I knew it would be better to be in the office. I felt torn.




Eager for a distraction, I snapped on the radio, and there was Marissa Mayer's new ban on telecommuting.




If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably know that telecommuting has been proven to raise productivity and improve morale. It costs employers nothing. It's also one of the few things that makes working parenthood manageable for those of us who don't have a stay-at-home spouse or an army of household help.




I will be the first to admit that telecommuting has its limits. There are days when I need to collaborate closely with a team, and it's easier to do that in person. But there are other days when I'm writing or sketching, and I find I'm more effective working in the peace and quiet of my home office.




Those of us who are conscientious about doing a good job and being a good parent constantly weigh competing priorities. Every day, we make decisions about where to put our time and attention, so that both our kids and our coworkers get what they need from us, while trying to keep ourselves from burning out. It's bad enough that we torment ourselves over our work-from-home days. How much worse to be at a company where you don't even have the option?




Ironically, the new Yahoo! rule was put in place to spark "innovation." Apparently, face time is so important that people must work exclusively at the office. But it's hard to see how keeping your employees on a leash will lead to innovative thinking. Isn't it more reasonable to conclude that Yahoo!'s best employees, its most innovative thinkers, will take their talents to companies that value their contribution and trust them to get their work done? And how is Yahoo! going to attract new talent in a culture where employees are treated as children that need to be babysat by their managers?




Some former Yahoo! employees have spoken out in favor of the work-from-home ban, saying employees had gotten lazy, and were abusing the system. But if that's the case, then those employees should be managed to higher standards, or fired, not chained to a desk.




What are we to learn from all this?




We cannot pin our hopes on a few privileged women like Marissa Mayer who manage, despite the odds, to "have it all," thinking their success will improve our lot. Their success will do nothing to change the fact that the U.S. is just about the worst place in the developed world to work and raise kids. Trickle-down economics didn't work in the '80s, and apparently, trickle-down feminism isn't going to work now. In fact, I am beginning to believe Mayer's success is a setback; it creates a new double standard. It's easy for her to say "Do all your work at the office." After all, she recently built a private baby nursery next to her own office so that she wouldn't have to be away from her baby. Those of us without multimillion dollar incomes don't have that option.

My hope is that Yahoo! employees will see they deserve better. I hope they decide to find jobs at companies that value results over arbitrary measures like time in the office. Maybe some of them will get fed up and start their own companies. Leave Marissa Mayer behind in her private nursery, contemplating how to save a dying company.