Marissa Mayer’s Real Elephant: China

AP091207121699

Because she’s a female CEO, everyone focused on the fact that she was being “anti-feminist.” If Mayer were a man, the narrative would be about the business strategy to bring Yahoo back to life.

By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt (Editor, Women 2.0)

Marissa Mayer jokingly broke her silence about the Yahoo! work from home policy at the Great Place to Work conference last week by displaying a slide with a big purple elephant emblazoned with WFH during a closing keynote speech.

“It’s not what’s right for Yahoo! right now,” she said. “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative.”

If Mayer were a man, this would not have been the case. Because she’s a female CEO, everyone focused on the fact that she was hurting working mothers, being “anti-feminist,” and hypocritical because she had recently built a nursery for her newborn baby at her office. If Mayer were a man, the narrative would be about the decision as a key business strategy to bring Yahoo! back to life and that’s all.

The company needs serious help. Yahoo!’s CFO reported quarterly results a couple of weeks ago and, in short, they were lousy – they’re selling fewer ads and revenue is down compared to last year. According to Business Insider, Yahoo!’s CFO, Ken Goldman, said that last quarter, the company  sold 7% fewer ads than it did during the same period a year ago, and that it charged 2% less for them.

Essentially the reason for this is because people aren’ t using Yahoo! as a consumer platform anymore. Despite this fact, however, the company’s future looks good because of a big stake it holds in the private Chinese Internet company Alibaba Group. As soon as that company goes public, which they say they will be before 2015, Alibaba Group will gain the right to purchase half of Yahoo’s stake, which means a $9 billion gain for Yahoo!. Because of this, it means that Yahoo!’s core business as a consumer Internet company is no longer the priority. Mayer’s priority is China and investing a lot of money in building or buying new products.

That’s what the business conversation should be about, not whether or not Mayer is an anti-feminist. One could argue that she made the decision to make people commute to the office because she’s changing the focus of what people work on and getting rid of those who do not fit the new focus. VC Mark Sumter argues that telecommuting is not good for a start-up environment, which demands a lot of creative collaboration that often happens in person and at the water cooler.

Maybe as Yahoo’s new business and new direction becomes more established, Mayer will put the telecommuting policy back in place. One of the first scientific studies of 12,000 employees from a Chinese travel agency done at Stanford University found that telecommuters performed better than their counterparts in the office. They took more calls because it was quieter and there were fewer distractions at home, and they worked more hours and took fewer sick days. This meant better profits for the company and less turnover.

“Study after study across the globe in a wide range of industries shows that telework is a triple win for people, planet, and profits,” Kate Lister, President, Global Workplace Analytics & the Telework Research Network. “Businesses can save an average of $10,000 per half-time telecommuter, the result of increased productivity, and reduced real estate, turnover and absenteeism.”

So once Mayer gets Yahoo in the right direction for Alibaba’s public offering, Yahoo!’s workers, women and men, could very well be back at home, and a lot richer for investing in the commute.

Women 2.0 readers: What are your thoughts on Marissa Mayer’s new strategy for Yahoo!?

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is an editor at Women 2.0 and author, essayist, and journalist interested in gender politics, work-life issues, working motherhood and the influence of science and technology on culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Daily Beast, New York, Vogue, Self, Outside, Wired, The New York Observer, and MSN Money. She is the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009). Follow her on Twitter at @rlehmannhaupt.

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley