Marissa's Mistake: Eliminating Workplace Flexibility Is Bad for Business

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends a session of the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2013 at the Sw
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends a session of the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2013 at the Swiss resort of Davos. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is taking place from January 23 to 27. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in July 2012, when Marissa Mayer was appointed CEO of Yahoo!, many were hopeful that the former Google superstar's new position marked a new era for women in Silicon Valley. Shortly after that announcement came, the frankly revolutionary news broke that she was pregnant -- and that Yahoo!'s board had known about her pregnancy when they announced their selection.

When there are only 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500, every one of them is doing a lot to advance other professional women simply because they're there. Mayer made it clear from the beginning that she has no interest in being a feminist pioneer; that's fine. It's not my role to disapprove of her personal priorities, and she's found a path for success that obviously works for her.

But the recent news that Yahoo! has eliminated the option for employees to work remotely goes beyond personal choices. It demonstrates poor judgment and misplaced priorities -- and may well be against the law. Under disparate impact discrimination doctrine, seeming neutral policies constitute illegal discrimination if they have a disproportionate impact on a minority group. This policy change will almost certainly disadvantage women more than men.

According to a source quoted in Business Insider, the company knows this news is going to make some employees quit, and that's the point:

Yahoo has a huge number of people of who work remotely -- people who just never come in.
Many of these people "weren't productive," says this source.
"A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo."

This explanation is disingenuous at best. If it's true that there are employees at Yahoo that aren't doing anything, fire them. I'm not arguing that parents who don't contribute as much as their peers should be protected. But presence in the office is a poor proxy for productivity. In fact, research shows that flexible work hours actually increase work effort.

And while it's arguable that requiring employees to spend more hours in the office increases productivity at all, it's inarguable that it pushes mothers out of the jobs and careers that require it. This is the wrong direction for an industry that's already struggling to include women.

The people who quit as a result of Yahoo!'s new policy aren't going to be people too lazy to come into the office, as the quote above seems to insinuate. (I'm unconvinced these people exist; if they do, there can't possibly be that many of them, particularly in this job market.) It's not going to be the people whose spouses already stay at home. It's not going to be the parents who have outsourced childcare to nanny twenty-four/seven. The people who quit are going to be the mothers (and perhaps some of the fathers) who are unwilling to sacrifice their family life for a two-hour-a-day commute; who can't leave the office for a half an hour to pick up their kids from school; people who want to be home for dinner.

It's news like Yahoo!'s new policy that gives me a creeping dread when I think about having kids. Unless something huge changes soon, I'm going to end up in a professional world where I'm punished for any signal that I have priorities outside of the office. This confuses incentives for young women in a way it doesn't for young men: Am I really going to have to pretend I won't put my kids first if I want to climb to the top? And if I'm not willing to do that, is that the same as "opting out" of the career I'm training for? I'm in law school because I want to have a successful career, but I refuse to accept that means I'll never have kids -- or, if I do, never see them. Where does that leave me?

I'm not addressing this to Marissa Mayer, because she and the other female CEOs of the Fortune 500 have any particular responsibility to create flexible workplaces. They do have that responsibility, because the way the system works now is untenable and people of my generation are demanding something different, but it belongs to the 479 male Fortune 500 CEOs as well. I'm not speaking to Mayer as another woman, but as a person with the ability to understand empirical data: There are better ways to increase productivity. We need to find them.