When I started working in business, I was 21 years old and was often the only woman in the room. Over the subsequent 15 years, I still often find myself in a room full of men, though I don't think about that fact very often. But listening to the uproar over Marissa Mayer's decision to call her workforce at Yahoo! back into the office has reminded me that women are still singled out.
Let's start with the facts. Yahoo! is a multinational company with $25 billion in market capitalization that has struggled in recent years in the shadow of its much larger rival. In July 2012, Marissa Mayer was named Yahoo!'s CEO. She had been a senior vice president at Google -- employee number 20, in fact -- and the search giant's first female engineer.
Mayer was brought in to turn around Yahoo!'s fortunes. That is what her shareholders want to see. And to avoid future layoffs like the company saw in 2008 and 2012, no doubt that is what her more than 11,000 employees want as well.
She was not made CEO to make a case for specific workplace policies. She was not hired to talk about the difficulties of having a young child and still working at the office. (Quick question -- do you know if Larry Page or Sergei Brin have children?)
Marissa Mayer was hired to do a job. Given Yahoo! stock is up more than 50 percent in the last year, I'd say she is off to a decent start.
But when a memo went out last month saying "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together" -- news outlets lit up, asking the question, "What does it mean?"
The torrent of media coverage that followed might have been headlined, "Female CEO Issues Memo to Working Women (and Men) Everywhere."
But that's not what she did. She made a decision she thought was good for her company and reached out to her employees. That's her job. We do a disservice to women in business if as we ask them to do anything less.
To be sure, there is ample evidence that workplace flexibility and telecommuting can help employees be more effective. And yes, these policies can help retain valuable employees who are juggling, work, family, and other obligations. In fact, Deloitte estimated that its flexibility policies saved the company over $41 million in turnover costs in 2003.
No doubt Mayer weighed her options and made a decision. And here's the thing -- the male CEO of Best Buy made a similar decision a week later, and we have hardly heard anything about it. Hubert Joly -- the CEO of Best Buy -- hasn't had his name splashed across the news and his business decision did not get nearly the same media attention.
When it comes to Yahoo!, if Mayer is right, the company will be more productive. If she's wrong, it won't. And as Yahoo! itself has clarified, this is not a statement about flexibility policies in general or even necessarily one that will stand at Yahoo! indefinitely.
The bottom line though is that I'm rooting for Mayer to be a successful CEO, and that is the standard by which I believe she will ultimately be judged. I want people to be asking Mayer to speak in a few years time about how she helped grow a great American company that employs even more workers in good, middle class jobs.
And in the future, when people remember that Marissa Mayer was once a CEO at a time when only 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies were led by women, I want that statistic to seem shockingly anachronistic.