March 26 2013

Reexamining Women’s Success at the Workplace

BlogHer.com

Karin Agness

Each day seems to feature yet another story about another woman weighing in on that always touchy subject:  How do women succeed at work without sacrificing too much of their personal lives?  And how do women define success anyway?

Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer—she’s the one who caused the storm with her decision to end Yahoo’s policy allowing employees to work from home—touched on another third-rail in this debate, and that’s whether she even accepts the term “feminist.”

In a recently released PBS/AOL documentary, Mayer didn’t just reject the term, she spoke out against some of the problems with this increasingly antiquated movement:  “I don’t…have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with [feminism]. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.”

If Mayer may be ambivalent about feminists, feminists are certainly ambivalent about her.  Mayer, who had her first child in September, has been denounced for eliminating the option of telecommuting for her employees.  A staff memo from Yahoo’s head of HR, who commutes 6,000 miles a week roundtrip, explained that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” and that working physically together would help Yahoo become a better company.  Some call Mayer a hypocrite for having a nursery built at the office, while taking away flexibility from the company’s employees.  Building an office nursery would normally be cheered as an example of workplace flexibility benefitting women, but not after her decision to end remote work.

Yet Mayer has been a problematic figure for feminists long before this telecommuting decision.  Her rise to power raises many questions that traditional feminists seem loath to answer:  How does feminism define success in the workplace today?  Is it considered feminist for a female CEO like Mayer to bring her baby to work?  Or anti-feminist for Mayer to show her caretaking side so publicly at the workplace?  Was Mayer’s decision to end the company’s work-from-home policy a sign of progress that a woman CEO can make that decision as a business decision?  Or should it be viewed as a step backwards because women (and it is important to acknowledge that this change also affects men) lose workplace flexibility?

Mayer, for her part, probably doesn’t have time for worrying about these distinctions.  In addition to being a CEO, she is a new mother, and as her posting of a picture on twitter of her and her baby at the office shows, she doesn’t seem to linger on any perceived conflict between these two roles.

Mayer isn’t alone in her discomfort with the term feminist.  When I speak on campuses, college women are quick to point out the negative connotation surrounding the word feminism. Feminists have fought back on campus with “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, trying to show the many different types of people who proudly call themselves feminists.  But feminists have to be especially frustrated to have one of the few female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company disclaim the term.  No t-shirt is going to fix this.

Perhaps feminists would benefit from embracing a little of the flexibility that they push for the rest of the world.  Many feminist organizations have defined success as getting women to the top of the most elite professions.  Yet feminism set women up for failure when it decided to measure the success of women in the workplace with this numbers game.  Not all women want top jobs at big companies like Mayer.  Some want part-time positions, and others would prefer to not work at all.  To achieve real success, we need a truly flexible work world—and, yes, that includes the flexibility for executives to decide not to offer telework or flextime.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we should celebrate how much women have achieved both inside and outside of the workplace.  Mayer may not even be aware that it is Women’s History Month—and that may be a great sign of just how far women have come.

Karin Agness is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and founder and president of the Network of Enlightened Women.

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