Saturday, July 21, 2012

Don't hate the Mayer, hate the Game, plus the odd Butterly Effect

I've left a lot of comments in a lot of places (most notably here, here, and here) this week about what I'm now utterly convinced is great news for women everywhere: Marissa Mayer, a 37-year-old pregnant woman, has been named CEO of Yahoo.

As @mom2boy put it so well in my comments section: "Take that glass ceiling." Yes, it really and truly is fantastic news. Full stop.

Of course, the response hasn't been all unicorns and rainbows though. I've learned a lot about certain corners of Corporate America this week, and about what's possible, and about what the costs might be.

At first, I'll admit, I was (and am) disappointed by Mayer's seemingly anti-feminist statements that could have been cribbed from Rush Limbaugh (feminists are "militant" and "have chips on their shoulder"... holy hell, I can't even defend that shizz), but upon further reflection I finally have begun to understand the social meaning of her words within the very specific, boundaried space of American tech culture. Now that I have a better handle on the relevant background assumptions of this culture, I think I can read her statements in their proper context, and see her remarks for the kind of coded language they probably are.

She's a master player of the game, no question. One of the unbreakable rules of this game might be don't you dare undermine the meritocracy myth cherished by the male tech geeks who actually control the system, or else they will fuck you up, apparently even if you're their boss. In 2012, it seems there is still no magical pinnacle you can ever reach in a large American tech career where it is safe to let your feminist flag fly if you wanted to. Can this really be so?

If true, what a sobering reality. And one I am, alas, in no position to refute. I simply note that if you take Mayer's words at face value, it's easy to conclude one can really get ahead by vocally distancing oneself from feminism. What Mayer actually believes in her heart is an open and probably irrelevant question. This all reminds me a bit too much of the progressive community's response to the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. He also played the game extremely well. [Insert disclaimer here: not all members of underprivileged groups must vocally and at all times support the liberation movements for those same groups. Duh.]

Against this backdrop I say: Don't hate the player, hate the game. The game sucks. And by game I, of course, mean patriarchy. Don't hate on Mayer for making it despite the odds being stacked against her. Be happy for her. Be happy for the hope her promotion to the CEO title gives to women, that yes, it is possible. It may not be terribly likely if you're an outspoken feminist who won't hide your true feelings at work, but nevertheless it is possible, and she proved it.

There's one other aspect raised by all of this that's been on my mind this week. There's this false and troubling Butterfly Effect-esque idea out there that whenever a woman becomes a mother, her work choices can start messing things up for all of these other people - many of whom she is not even related to, nor has ever met before.

Walk this through with me and tell me if I'm wrong.

Odd Butterfly Effect argument, Example #1 - If a mother stays home, and lets her husband be the family breadwinner, according to believers of the Butterfly Effect-esque idea, she's messing things up for his natural competitors at work by giving him unfair time and resource advantages against them. If he's somebody's boss, it's constructed as her choice to stay home that's responsible for making him choose to penalize those of his employees who would rather not work long hours and to favor those employees who do work the longer hours. The fact that he's an asshole is not assigned any responsibility. (My, what power this mother has.)

Odd Butterfly Effect argument, Example #2 - If a mother works outside the home in a corporate setting, she's got to return from maternity leave at the socially correct time, instead of the time that might feel right for her personally, or else - Butterfly Effect! Other parents she doesn't even work with are going to be harmed! Her choice to resume work before using all of her paid time is constructed as undermining the work/life balance opportunities for other people, even those of people who work at some other random company. Which brings us to Mayer's situation.

Mayer says she plans to take a 2-week-long maternity leave, which has some folks concerned because they feel it's too short. (Ironically, two weeks is still far longer than the vast majority of working mothers in America can hope to enjoy.) The most common iterations of this reaction are "she's a clueless first time mom who is just fooling herself" or "she's acting too 'macho' if she honestly thinks she can pull it off" (see the original Anne-Marie Slaughter fallacy: "Because I wouldn't do it therefore no one can"). I actually believe this is still yet more coded language from Mayer - the CEO of a public company would rather not see her company's stock go right into the shitter because she was foolish enough to make an in-stone proclamation 3 months in advance when she can, of course, change her mind if her postpartum reality differs from her initial estimate. Also, I haven't heard anyone mention this possibility yet, but often the full leave benefits only accrue after working at company for at least a year - I'm even talking about professional jobs where 12 weeks might be the norm, you still might not be guaranteed to get it if you've only been working there for a few months.

Does a choice that, by the way, Mayer hasn't even technically made yet, really and truly harm any other employees? Inside or outside of Yahoo? I don't necessarily think so, given that the real harm is being done by the people who are in the actual positions to say yes or no to a leave request, as well as those who have been running the places with the policies that have sucked for so long. Possibly I'm wrong though. Many who are critical of Mayer's two week maternity leave announcement are citing the supposed Zoe Cruz precedent (who didn't take the full time off herself then was apparently hostile to folks at Morgan Stanley who wanted flex time).

Can't we at least wait until Mayer's leave is over before we assess what the verdict is for folks at Yahoo? In the meantime, let's blame the actual people in charge for the issues that continue to plague us elsewhere. You know what kids say - "You're not the boss of me!" Blame the actual boss of you. That said, I get it though - Mayer is an easy scapegoat; she's been all over the news lately, so she's a convenient person to blame for the fact that the corporate game too often just plain sucks. Hate the game, not the player. Hate the game, learn to play it better. Or stop playing (full disclosure: that's what I did). Or start your own game (also what I did).

That's all I've got. Sock it to me now.


Cloud said...

Huh, I guess I forget that not everyone hangs out on tech blogs and with tech guys. I've been sort of surprised by the fact that people were surprised by that part of my post!

I should point out, though, that not everyone in tech agrees with me, particularly about whether Mayer could not advocate a bit more freely for feminism.

I like the way you formulate it here- we're all so busy sniping at the decisions that individual women make to try to just make it through and get what they want out of life, when really we should be sniping at the fact that the rules we play by are so screwed up.

Good post!

Cloud said...

umm, that should be "whether Mayer could NOW advocate a bit more freely for feminism."

Maybe my perspective on the power of CEOs is skewed by the fact that I've spent so much time in small companies, where the CEO can lead... but can't really control. And if a CEO loses the respect of the employees, the company is going down. I can see that it might be different at a big company like Yahoo. But I still think she's actually more constrained in what it is wise to say about feminism now than she was when she was still a middle manager at Google. Just my opinion.

hush said...

@Cloud - I should have included a link to your awesome "In Defense of Marissa Mayer" post where I talked about what I learned about tech culture this week - now it's included. Thanks for those insights!

My own perspective on the power of public company CEOs is skewed, too. I see them as being perpetually worried about their stock price. They'll say pretty much anything to prevent traders from potentially screwing them over. So that makes me agree that Mayer has to be a lot more constrained about what she can say on virtually any topic that might be taken the wrong way by the traders.