As someone interested in gender equality in the workplace and in issues of work-life balance, the past year has been filled with headlines of interest. Beginning with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic last summer, there has been a frenzy around what successful women have to say about their positions of power, particularly what they feel they have had to sacrifice and what they have learned when it comes to work-life balance.
While pleased to see a topic of personal interest in the headlines, I continue to be highly ambivalent about the purpose and value of this press. Among other things, I am alarmed by the myopic focus on upper-class, white women as the voice of all women in the workplace, by the neglect of men’s thoughts, experiences and strategies when in comes to work-life balance, and by an emphasis on individual beliefs and actions rather than the structural contexts within which these beliefs and actions take place.
Despite this ambivalence, however, I do not think the press can or should be ignored. So despite my lateness in jumping in on the conversation around Marissa Mayer’s decision to abolish telecommuting at Yahoo, I do want to share a few observations and thoughts from a gender perspective.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Mayer story in terms of gender has been the backlash to the backlash. In response to critiques about Mayer’s decision, there have been two different but related lines of dialogue. The first focuses on a claim that Mayer’s decision is being critiqued largely because she is a woman. The second, exemplified by this Forbes article and this article by End of Men author Hanna Rosin, is that feminists critical of the decision, whom the writers claim are largely out-of-touch and irrelevant in today’s society, do not understand the “new feminist” image of women such as Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.
I believe both lines of thought are shortsighted in that they fail to put Mayer’s decision into any kind of historical context.[i] Mayer’s decision is alarming because it threatens to re-create a (slowly narrowing) separation between the workplace and the home. The distinction between work and family, which was prominent during the early and mid-twentieth century, made it difficult to be involved in both career and family. In tandem, a gendered division of labor emerged, with men devoting their time and energy to professional life and women, in large part, devoting theirs to domestic pursuits. Over time, both spheres evolved to become more and more all-encompassing, further solidifying gendered pathways of work and family.
We are all familiar with this history, with its negative psychological and economic impact on women’s lives, and with the subsequent women’s movement, which facilitated women’s entrance into the workplace and began to challenge gendered norms and discriminating organizational structures. The rebuttals to Mayer’s critics highlighted above, however, suggest that Mayer’s decision exists in isolation from the systematic change that made her success possible. It ignores the collective effort required to challenge cultural beliefs and to breakdown structural barriers to women’s success in the workplace.
Without these efforts, success stories like those of Mayer and Sandberg, would not be possible. Because of this history and because the media positions these women as the representatives of today’s working women, what they say and do, as women, does matter. [ii] Further, the negative reactions to traditional feminists’ concerns (or to these feminists themselves) implicitly claim that the large-scale changes brought about through the women’s movement are irrelevant in the contemporary setting. In other words, these narratives suggest that the success of today’s top corporate women is a result of their own hard work and psychological strength. By promoting this individualistic perspective, that dialogue undermines the structural supports that helped to realize women’s success in the first place and threatens to disrupt current and future progress toward gender equality in the workplace.
[i] Although I do agree with elements of the first; work-life balance is too often framed as primarily a women’s issue.
[ii] I want to be careful here to distinguish that differentiation based on gender, not sex, are what matter here. Biological sex differences between men and women are vastly overblown in our society; however, ignoring socially based gender differences can make privilege and disadvantage less visible and harder to address.