Thursday, February 28, 2013

Carl & Marissa: Some Thought Experiments

I'm reading Broca's Brain, Carl Sagan's book of essays on the 'romance of science'. It's always been a struggle for me to get through non-fiction but this is a great read and I'm congratulating myself on keeping up with it. Here's an excerpt:

"...We might therefore one day travel to the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy and return in a time of a few decades measured on board the ship - although, as measured back on Earth, the elapsed time would be sixty thousand years, and very few of the friends who saw us off would be around to commemorate our return."

Not 'none' but 'very few'.
Hahaha Carl, you're such a kidder. You're kidding aren't you Carl? 
Carl? Are you there, Carl? 
You're freaking me out Carl, stop it. 


On Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to ban working from home.

As a professional:
When I'm not traveling I work from home and I love it. It helps my process. I'm disciplined. I meet all my deadlines and on most days I don't turn in rubbish.
If Mayer was my boss I'd want to strangle her. 

At the same time, I also agree with this article: '3 Reasons Marissa Mayer Has Made A Smart Move
Even though my job is creative and needs peace and quiet, I've felt the drawbacks of working far removed from my colleagues, where the kick of working for a common goal gets diluted. It's difficult to feel part of a team when you are geographically separated for 80% of your teamwork activities. I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect the end-product.

In that sense, I'm tempted to think that Mayer might be onto something here (plus, to make an assessment of her decision from a business point of view, one might need to study the circumstances at Yahoo! that prompted this decision. It could hardly have been a random act to make its employees' lives miserable. I mean, who is she? My ex-boss?).

As a working woman, who doesn't have children and can't speak for those who do: 
Do I feel her decision is anti-women? In spite of that bloody 5-star nursery next to her office, I might be tempted to say no, I don't think her decision is anti-women (insensitive yes, anti-women no). 

I've always been suspicious of this culture of 'supporting' women by tailoring their professional lives to allow them to be mothers & wives. 
Call me paranoid but I find it sinister to promote the idea that women can & must do it all (i.e. be rocket scientists at NASA & Mother India all in one). 
It puts an unrealistic amount of pressure on women, propping us up to be failures no matter how hard we try. 

So here's a thought experiment in 2 parts: 
What would happen if a woman (or a man, for that matter) had to choose between profession and parenting? Wouldn't we have to question what we've come to assume is axiomatic? (The axiom being: we can 'have it all'/ 'having it all' is helpful to us as individuals & as a community.)

Part 1: What if Yahoo!'s decision influences work cultures across the professional world and there comes a time, when it becomes less demonic & more normal to choose one over the other?
Could it be that a woman (or a man) will be free of the pressure to have it all, do it all and be some impossible version of the 'complete woman/ man'?
Could it be that women (and men) might actually be happy being one (professional) or the other (parent) without a sense of loss or having 'missed out'?

Part 2: What if we reject Yahoo!s decision and there comes a time when we have to embrace the 'having it all' trope in every possible way?
Could it be that more men might become equal stakeholders in the child-rearing process (and women might actually let them)?
Could it be that workplaces alter & adapt themselves to support this 'having it all' trope (rather than banishing employees to their homes, where the messiness of raising children is not the organization's problem)?

We live in an age when we are expected to be all the big things: parents, consummate professionals, responsible caretakers of our aging parents, contributing members to our community. 
Is it realistic to be all of these, all at once? Do measures (like encouraging working from home) that allow us to be a million things at once, help us or harm us?

I still haven't figured it out. But until I do, I can't scream bloody (sexist) murder at Mayer.

(Another thought experiment: If Mayer was a male CEO, would the outrage target him personally for his life choices or would it focus on Yahoo! as an organization?)

(Additionally: There's something very creepy about expecting her to be a card-carrying feminist just because she is a head honcho. And then demonizing her because she's not.)

Slightly off-point but connected : Read about the feud between Rebecca Walker and her Pulitzer Prize winning author mother, Alice Walker. It's the seamier side of what happens when a woman tries to make a go of both profession and motherhood and gets it all muddled up. Not saying all woman are unable to handle both. Not even saying that all women don't want to handle both. But here is a woman (Alice), who clearly couldn't and didn't and the consequences were painful for all parties involved.

The mother-daugher wars: Phyllis Chesler
"Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one."


  1. I work in a company that has a good WFH policy (short-term, long-term, with approval of manager etc), and it comes in extremely handy when required. I personally always prefer to work in the office, because with an overactive 5-year-old daughter at home, I don’t get as much work done as when I am in the office. Also, the assumption here is that the person working from home is actually working and not goofing off. If Marissa Mayer has stopped it across the board, then it will pose a serious problem for the mothers. I have a couple of mothers in my team who are working from home and doing a damn good job of it. So I wouldn’t want to discourage the policy but maybe control it better.

    1. Hi Gargi. Thank you for bringing in the parent perspective on all this.
      How do you feel about this being a largely woman-centric debate rather than something that draws in both sexes?

    2. It has become a woman-centric debate simply because the facility is more useful to mothers. Being a mother myself, I highly value it – it saves my life on the occasions like rationalsurd has mentioned below! I don’t think that any of the fathers or even single people who have taken advantage of WFH want it to go away any time soon.

  2. From my experience, I think it does draw in both sexes.
    I for one prefer to wfh once in a while, and luckily my current manager has no issues with it (well, so far). I usually wfh in the following circumstances -
    1. As I wake up, sometimes I feel super-productive, open my laptop and start working on stuff that mostly requires my inputs and very less interaction with someone else. I feel if I start getting ready for work and commuting, it would just dampen the initial burst of energy. So I work for a few hours, then go to office midday. But since I've been interacting with my colleagues over emails and chat, they know I'm in front of my computer and not slacking off. And then once in office, I can get to do all the work that really requires face-to-face interaction.
    2. I have to run errands for home, pick or drop someone to a station, go to the bank for some work, etc. In such situations, I prefer to wfh since commuting for work would just use up time that could have been spent in other tasks which are equally important in my life.
    And I'm not going for the "have it all" approach here, it's just that I feel I have to prioritize my life outside of work equally.
    3. I stayed up late last night reading or watching something that interested me and just felt plain lazy to wake up and go to office on time. In such a situation, if my work is not acting as a bottleneck for someone else and is not very crucial (that is, it requires my inputs and I think I can meet the deadline in my own way), I request my manager for partial wfh. This way I don't have to necessarily wake up with the alarm clock and subsequently stay stifled during the day. It sometimes means I have to work late hours to cover up, but that is a choice I make and I'm fine with it.

    It's not just me, I have seen colleagues who are more motivated and engaged in their work if they are given this occasional flexibility. In a corporate structure, people are accountable for their work and they understand that under-performance is noticed sooner or later, and someone who wants to wfh should understand the pros and cons that come with it.

    Depending on the nature of the work, and how much of it requires individual effort and collaborative effort, offices should decide how much work from home is tolerable. I don't want to pick one out of home and office. If I feel I have to prioritize some work for home or personal life on a certain day, I'd like to have the flexibility to do so (of course, conditions apply). I don't know whether this means I want to "have it all" or not. I just want an opportunity to get the "work-life balance" that some companies are so fond of talking about.

    I haven't touched on the parenting aspect of it, simply because I cannot speak from experience on it, and the points I have mentioned above could apply to either a man or a woman.

    About the Yahoo news, I think going with the extreme on most(all?) things is usually not a good thing to do. A blanket ban on wfh doesn't sound good, more so when it's a company full of software people. My work involves a fair bit of coding, and I don't think I would have taken this decision well :) I think trying to strike the right balance is the key, but maybe since "balance" is subjective and depends from person to person, it can carry more overheads from a business perspective than creating rules that apply to everyone.

  3. As a working mother, working from home saves my life every single day. I'm not striving to have it all. I'm just trying to be an adult with a job that challenges my mind, at the same time as being with my growing child who needs my physical presence from the moment he gets home. My team is global, as I imagine is the case with most of Yahoo, so it's stupid to think that having to haul my sorry ass to office everyday, spending 2 hours each way doing it, is going to make me more productive. WFH makes me grateful every single day to my company.

    1. what an incredible answer. Being an adult is the simple and most effective answer to this question. and I feel we're doing a disservice to those men who go out of their way to support a family participating both financially and taking care of the family.

  4. You inspired me to pen my own thoughts on this: