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The Mother of All Misconceptions

E.B. Boyd | September 5, 2012 | Story Tech World

It was hard to miss the irony: Just one month after the Princeton professor and former Washington, D.C., powerhouse Anne-Marie Slaughter provoked a firestorm by declaring in an Atlantic magazine cover story that women still can’t have it all, Yahoo announced that Google powerhouse Marissa Mayer would be taking over as CEO—while six months pregnant.

The announcement seemed to give the lie to Slaughter’s complaints, but the press response circled right back. Pundits far and wide stampeded over each other to weigh in on whether a woman with a bun in the oven was the best choice for a company that needed so much care and feeding itself. Certainly, the odds against Mayer are enormous, as they would be against anyone trying to right a foundering $20 billion ship. But if (or when) she fails, the pundits will no doubt line up again to declare the hiring of a mommy-CEO a failure.

A deeper look, however, suggests that both Slaughter and the talking heads are missing some crucial facts. Mayer, of course, steps into her new role with advantages few working parents enjoy. With a net worth estimated at about $300 million, and a five-year pay package estimated at $117 million, she’ll be able to afford all the nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs, chauffeurs, and private assistants her CEO heart desires. But what will also help her succeed is that she’ll be working in an industry in which the constraints Slaughter bemoaned as a senior official in the State Department (put in long hours, always work at the office) have more or less evaporated.

The fact is, tech companies are at the forefront of a workplace revolution that emphasizes a more resultsoriented philosophy, giving employees—both male and female—wide latitude in shaping their schedules. “We focus on performance, results, and customer satisfaction,” says Patty McCord, chief talent officer at Netflix, a leader in progressive work policies. “However employees choose to go about delivering that is fine with us.”

I should know. I worked in tech for the better part of a decade, and my work schedule never hewed to the traditional model—not because I’m a mother (I’m not) but because I crank best between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. My coworkers were never surprised to see me arrive midmorning or leave mid-afternoon—or to get emails from me at 1 a.m. As long as I did my work and was available to my colleagues, my bosses didn’t particularly care whether I was sitting in my cube or hanging out in a Starbucks on the other side of the country.

This seems to be true at all levels in Silicon Valley. I know of a startup CEO who converted a spare office into a nursery, so new parents could bring their infants to work whenever they wanted. I know of a former Google executive who took her nanny along with her, at the company’s expense, on overseas work trips when her children were infants. I know of a mid-level director whose small tech company let her convert to a part-time schedule after her first child was born. Facebook even ponies up a whopping $4,000 stipend— aka “baby cash”—for each new child.

Though women in other sectors of the economy might worry that they’ll be shunted into the slow lane postbaby, many working mothers in tech say that’s not the case. “I had just taken on a more senior role, but my new manager and her boss didn’t even blink when I told them I was pregnant,” says Kira Wampler, formerly a manager at Intuit. Five months after coming back from maternity leave, she was promoted again. And six years later she’s a vice president at Lytro.

Of course, technology itself has helped liberate the industry from the tyranny of the fixed workspace. “The BlackBerry invented this kind of flexibility,” says Valerie Frederickson, CEO of Valerie Frederickson & Company, a 50-person recruiting firm that places HR executives in Silicon Valley and around the world. “I haven’t found any other industry that embraces it as much as tech.”


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