Lean in! Take charge! No fear!
Out with flex-time! In with face time!
These are the messages two of the highest-profile working mothers in America are sending to the rest of us. If Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, and Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!'s Chief Executive Officer, have their way, women in the workplace will remake themselves in their C-Suite images which, sadly, is looking like something from the 1980's movie Working Girl. Their sentiments sound an awful lot like what I heard as a young journalist and then as a new attorney in a large law firm decades ago. Is this a case of "what's old is new again?"
Whether it's fair or not, I expect more of high-powered women leaders who also happen to be mothers when it comes to understanding what's realistic for most women in the workforce -- especially when the online community of women has rallied around them in the past, as happened when Mayer announced shortly after becoming Yahoo!'s CEO, that she was pregnant and would only be taking a couple of weeks off for maternity leave.
As for Sandberg, her new book, Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead, (which I read after borrowing an advance review copy) makes some good points about women needing to take charge of their careers, and not being afraid to "lean in" to the challenges of managing a professional life with family responsiblities, but it's hard to focus on her positive points when, for most of the book, she tries really hard to portray herself as just another ordinary working mom who's overcome the same problems the rest of us face. That's a tough sell, as she shares anecdotes like the one about how happy she was that on a business trip with her kids, she was on a private jet and not a commercial flight when she discovered her daughter had head lice (WHEW! Dodged a bullet on spreading those nits!).
As for Mayer, Yahoo! announced late last week that all flex-time and remote working arrangements would be rescinded, and if you want to keep your job at Yahoo!, you have to be in the office every day. Even though there is plenty of research that shows employers and employees benefit in productivity when certain flexible work arrangements are in place, in a lively Facebook discussion, I questioned how many women must be feeling who came to Mayer's defense of her personal parenting/career choice when she said she was only taking two weeks off after having her baby. Her baby, her decision. Sure, we all knew she had a boatload of help, but whatever works for her, right?
As one friend who is been a working mother in the corporate world remarked about Mayer:
While I do understand that this is first and foremost a business decision that Mayer has made for Yahoo!, impacts both men and women, and may be in the best long-term interests for the company, it is impossible to not also view it through a feminist lens that understands that working mothers and two-income families have been among the chief beneficiaries of flexible working arrangements. And it is a shame that we can't incorporate these values into business success.
Mayer, in making her corporate decision, and Sandberg, in trying to craft a new social movement by using her life as example, are both blithely ignoring the realities of life for the vast majority of working families today.
Pregnancies have complications. Babies might be easy in some senses (they are portable for a while), but kids have issues and problems and illnesses and conditions. There are families who having double care-giving obligations -- for young kids and for aging parents. Yes, we should expect our spouses and partners to be involved in dealing with these things and all the other complications of life, but it is never as easy as it sounds. Both Mayer and Sandberg, at a time when they are trying to demonstrate their own leadership abilities, have made their tone-deafness abundantly clear.
Mayer and Sandberg may be very well-intentioned -- looking out for shareholders and encouraging women to aim for more -- but the ways in which they are going about these two goals will only take us back to the time when women had to sneak out of the office if they needed to be home early (oh, wait, even Sandberg admits she did that) and bringing back that mom guilt I thought we'd all agreed wasn't good for anybody.
Joanne Bamberger is the author of the Amazon.com bestseller (and her own "binder full of women"), Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, the first book to examine the rise of the political motherhood movement. Joanne, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and political/media analyst, is the founder of the political blog, PunditMom. She is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the women's online commentary magazine, The Broad Side. You can also find her political commentary at Politico's Arena.