Marissa Mayer Doesn’t Want a Workers’ Revolution, She Wants a Successful Business


In late February, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer landed in the spotlight when an internal memo informing employees they would no longer be permitted to work remotely was made public. Mayer’s strict new policy is fueled by the belief that requiring her employees to physically share a workspace is a necessary step toward her most urgent task as CEO: reversing Yahoo’s downward spiral toward obsolescence. Unsurprisingly, the backlash has been abundant.

The former Google executive has been criticized for perpetuating short and inflexible parental leave policies (famously leading by example), for being out of touch with evolving workplace trends, and for bluntly dismissing feminism (joining other "great thinkers such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift," quipped Hannah Rosin). On top of it all, the evidence that working remotely benefits rather than harms companies appears to be stacked against Mayer. Studies have shown that employees who are able to work from home are actually more productive and take fewer sick days.

Only time will tell whether Mayer’s new policy will save or sink Yahoo, but in the meantime it’s worth noting that her managerial tactics are hardly radical in the corporate world in which she thrives. Is her decision one that supports or uplifts employees who struggle to balance work and parenthood? Absolutely not. Is Mayer likely to become a bastion of feminism? Nope. But apart from being an extremely successful woman in a male-dominated field herself, Mayer has done little to imply that she wants or intends to become some kind of revolutionary figurehead for working women. Do her gender and success automatically require her to become a force for change in the workplace? Though it would be nice if she chose that path, we hardly hold male CEOs to such a standard.

Mayer’s impressive career path doesn’t reflect a desire to change the status quo; rather, she seems content pursuing success within its questionable confines. Keep in mind that she sits on the Board of Directors for Walmart, a company notorious for exploiting its workers (and underpaying female employees). When she joined the board last year, Mayer was quoted in this statement as saying that "Walmart is an amazing story of entrepreneurship and, as one of the world's most powerful brands, touches millions of lives every day. I look forward to contributing to Walmart's continued growth, success, and innovation in the years to come." It is difficult to imagine what louder proclamation Mayer could make about how she does and does not intend to use her position of power.

Walmart aside, Mayer is making her millions in Silicon Valley. Though it fancies itself a "meritocracy," the face of the Valley looks a lot like those of non-tech corporate worlds— in a word, homogeneous. As a female CEO, Mayer is a notable outlier, but the color of her skin and her middle-class background are not. Though Silicon Valley is known for the youthfulness of its workforce and Mayer fits this trend as a 37 year old at the top of her field, its business boom is also known to exclude blacks and Latinos. While the media should absolutely continue to shine a light on the lack of diversity in this world, it’s worth noting that it does not appear to be the most fertile ground for a social movement —particularly for a woman who doesn’t seem to care for them.

Mayer seems more than content as a corporate workhorse, and though it might be disappointing, it shouldn’t come as a shock that she expects her employees to follow suit. Her policy against working remotely was based on a review of workers’ remote logins to Yahoo’s Virtual Private Network (VPN), and Mayer was apparently unimpressed with the hours they kept. While the conversation spawned by her data-driven decision is far from apolitical, the policy itself seems to have been made in a numerical vacuum.

Mayer might not be a sympathetic character, but her track record suggests that she is good at what she does. And let’s keep in mind the environment in which she chooses to work. As Melissa Gira Grant writes, "[F]eminism will never be one of the 'disruptive' values of Silicon Valley so long as Silicon Valley is principally a machine for producing wealth for the few. To the extent that someone who so benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate environment in which it is exercised."

Mayer, of course, does not even begin to champion feminism. Grant refers to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. As noted earlier, Mayer refuses to identify herself with the word at all.

So before we throw up our hands in disappointment and anger at Mayer’s latest policy, let’s zoom out a bit and remember the world in which she enthusiastically works. Though it could clearly use a revolution, it’s not going to come from an unwilling leader.