If you want to see markers of female empowerment, just look at two of the tech industry's biggest stars. Marissa Mayer signed on as CEO of Yahoo while pregnant. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is casting herself as a latter-day Betty Friedan with her forthcoming book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, but whether either executive is setting a standard most working women would like is very much in doubt.
Sandberg wants to encourage working women, especially mothers, to stand up for themselves in the workplace and take seats at the leadership table. She says they need to stop making excuses and recognize that they have to make tradeoffs between work and family just as men do.
Mayer, who boasted "I only need two weeks of maternity leave," is doing just that. In an internal personnel memo, obtained by journalist Kara Swisher, the company has decreed that flex time is out, face time is in and good luck finding someone who can deal with the kids when there is a half day or when your sick child needs care.
Moms need flexibility
Welcome to the not-so-friendly 2013 workplace.
Which workers are more likely to want flex time? Working moms.
Which employees are trying to keep their jobs in a still-volatile workplace without making waves by clamoring for more leadership recognition? Those would be mothers (and some working dads) who'd love to sneak out of work at 5:30 p.m.
The message coming from these C-suite moms is less about empowerment and accountability than it is about guilt. Guilt for women wanting to work remotely in order to manage their lives and provide for their families. Guilt for not acting with more ambition. Guilt for daring to put their children and spouses on equal footing with their careers.
Guilt is never a good motivator. Mayer and Sandberg, even if they have good intentions, are setting back the cause of working mothers. Sandberg's argument, that equality in the workplace just requires women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps (though she does acknowledge the need for a shift in national policy for working families) is just as damaging as Mayer's office-only work proclamation that sends us back to the pre-Internet era of power suits with floppy bow ties.
Both these approaches are leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many working mothers who don't have the income or family luxuries of these uber-women. Sandberg has reportedly said she'll balance her Facebook day job with her new movement by using her vacation days.
Several working mothers of young children I know scoffed at Sandberg's "let them eat cake" remark. They don't have the paid vacation to balance work and their families, let alone book projects and social movements.
Women like them, who have chosen to step off the corporate track in order to have the flexibility to support their families and manage child care and other obligations, and who have little or no paid leave to manage emergencies or other projects, find her remarks somewhat cavalier.
Not to mention economically obtuse.
In every decade since 1980, women's labor force participation has risen compared with men. In recent years, the workforce participation of women with children ages 6-17 is nearly identical to all men. Mothers' workplace success isn't just vital to the women and children involved, it is also vital to companies that want to have the best workers.
Both Mayer and Sandberg are overlooking the forest for the trees. The amount of household help they can afford to manage their family lives isn't a reality for the vast majority of women and never will be.
They might have good intentions, but these efforts are already fomenting resentment. Sandberg can't hope to start a revolution that will bring women real equality in the workplace if her potential troops revolt.
No hand up
With the launch of Sandberg's "Lean In" effort and Mayer's office-work only proclamation, two things are apparent: Both have forgotten about the women who came before, enabling them to land in their lofty positions in the first place.
And the duo don't want to extend the same hand to anyone else. Instead, they've launched the latest salvo in the war on moms.
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