Yahoo’s Telecommuting Ban and How it Affects Feminism

Yahoo seems to think that employees only want to work at home because they have ulterior motives like lying on the couch and browsing cat videos on YouTube. Have they completely forgotten the plight of the working parent?

Overlooking this issue would be a pretty significant oversight, given that recently appointed CEO Marissa Mayer announced her own pregnancy shortly after taking the reins at Yahoo and gave birth to a son in September of last year. Yet Yahoo has launched a move that many are seeing as downright hostile to working mothers in particular, banning the option to work at home and chaining their employees to their cubicles. Presumably, working at home leads to “empty parking lots” and employees slacking off on company time, despite research suggesting that this option actually creates more productive employees.

This is a feminist issue because women, no matter their economic status, are expected to have flexible schedules. Men, on the other hand, are expected to have rigid, 9-5 type jobs that they just couldn’t possibly take a day off from. Society is structured so that women are expected to leave early when a child falls ill at school or pushes the school swing-hog off the swing set and gets suspended for the day. Anyone who is or knows a mother knows the hell moms get for having to take off, but fewer people recognize that we set up this structure by not allowing people to telecommute or by ridiculing the male parent into pressuring Mom to take care of it. If we allowed for one or two days a week of telecommuting in fields where this is reasonable, then we might have a chance of breaking down that structure.

In many ways, Yahoo’s ban is seen as an assault on working parents. Parents who telecommute rely on the schedule’s flexibility to take care of children, whether it be tending to a toddler or just dropping off and picking up older kids from school. One would think that Marissa Mayer, who just had a nursery built next to her office at Yahoo, would understand this. I guess that’s just the disconnect that the very privileged often exhibit. And it’s not just mothers who need this flexibility. Centering this debate on working moms is itself sexist and puts the onus of childcare on the female parent, when it should rest on both parents. The ability to work at home is a feminist issue because it gives us the chance to level the playing field and give men the opportunity to parent equally, too.

This isn’t just a parenting issue either: the option to telecommute is invaluable for people with disabilities. Some people who might normally be excluded from certain careers because of disabilities rely on the ability to work from home at least a few days per week for employment. Eliminating this option is detrimental to those with disabilities. While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that reasonable accommodations be provided to employees, the publicity of the recent ban could scare off many potential applicants.

There are some who might argue that allowing women to work from home isn’t feminist at all. After all, we fought hard for the right to work outside the home (though this line of thought tends to exclude women of color and impoverished women who worked outside the home anyway out of necessity), and we’ve fought even harder to bust the glass ceiling. But in a work culture that views working from home as being lazy, is it really what women need? And in a re-emerging cult of domesticity, the option to work from home might create more of a social imperative to use that option to keep women at home with the children and housework. Then not only are they taking care of the kids, cleaning house, and preparing meals, they are also holding down a full-time job. Because of this, there is some worry that working from home creates double work for women and pushes them back into the homemaker role while also expecting them to generate an income.

Valuing a woman’s choice is always a top priority, and we should be able to trust women to make the career choice that is right for her. If that means telecommuting two days a week while taking care of a small child, that’s fine. If it means dropping off the kids at daycare and going to work, that’s okay too. And if it means a woman who does not have or want children telecommuting on a weekly basis so she can crunch numbers in faded leggings and a holey sweatshirt while eating cereal, then that’s also cool. This isn’t just about Yahoo, though such a large company making such a bold move creates an opening for every other company currently allowing or thinking of allowing telecommuting to outright ban it. It’s about the idea of working from home as a whole and how that concept affects feminism, women, and families. It’s possible that working from home could have some very negative effects, but it’s also possible that it could be just what we need to start changing how we look at equal parenting.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

7 replies on “Yahoo’s Telecommuting Ban and How it Affects Feminism”

I think that Yahoo! actually has some pretty good reasons for banning telecommuting. The corporate culture there is pretty messed up, and it has been revealed that some of the telecommuters were not even logging in, or working on their own startups while collecting a paycheck from Google. Also, and I’m not in the tech world, but in most companies, not coming in physically to the office if you are in a creative or collaborative position would doom your career pretty quickly, or at least limit your career trajectory.

I’ve been in companies or departments where things are just really dysfunctional and to stop it you have to bring everyone up short — scorched earth is the only thing that works. I suspect that this is what Yahoo! is doing. What I’m hoping is that they’ll use this move to get rid of the people who are literally scamming the company, and then allow responsible and productive telecommuters to go back to doing so.

Of course, I am very concerned that this decision will be used by other employers to discriminate against mothers. However, in Yahoo!’s case, the company is, according to reports, a bloated mess of inefficiency and poor morale. I think this is a “housecleaning” move.

When I was telecommuting I put in, on average 4-6 hours more – per day – on the days I worked from home. I had an hour and a half actual driving commute, but on the days I worked from home I still got up at the same time so I was logged on earlier. Even if I did sleep in I didn’t have to take the time to do my hair and make-up and put on a suit. I had SO many less distractions so could get more accomplished. I didn’t have to go out to lunch to make political connections, so I could eat while I worked. I would work while I would have otherwise been driving home. And since I was in “work” mode, I would keep working well into the evening until Mr. would tell me “enough already – its time to punch out!”

I know this is anecdotal evidence, but everyone I know who has telecommuted will tell the same tale. So, no, I don’t buy Melissa Mayer’s explanation that cutting telecommuting will boost productivity.

I do think this is a little bit complicated. Because I do agree with Mayer that innovation is much better when employees are physically together. I have worked with remote teams and with colocated teams and the colocated teams were able to make better decisions faster. So for software, at least, innovation and collaborative product development requires in person meetings.

However, I do think flexibility will make everyone happier – why can’t they work from home a day or two a week? I know I find that to be a great balance of productivity and flexibility gained by working from home with the innovation and collaboration that comes from working in the office.

Of course, in the office, we have to have an environment that fosters collaboration which is something that makes most corporations uncomfortable, but that is another discussion altogether.

I think that there’s just a huge gray area overlooked. Why not work at the office AND at home? You need less office places but can “check” productivity whenever someone comes in. No empty parking lots but no illegal parked cars either. Am I the only one thinking of this? Because I really hope not.

This is interesting because my partner also works for a large-ish tech company and they too are trying to curb employees working at home. It worries me, because when I finally graduate from the PhD, I am apt to be a lot less mobile in terms of where I can work, and we were kind of counting on the tech industry continuing to facilitate working remotely. But, I will say this, there have been a few times where my partner has been doing large implementations/launches for his department and there have been problems with the code (either not there, or not tested so it works)… and those errors have consistently been caused by people who work at home. Perhaps there are people that need the accountability that comes with an office environment? And how do you guide those employees to choose to work in the office while making it ok for the rest of the department to work from home?

This pisses me off to no end. When my husband used to work from home on occasion he’d actually get more work done because he could just focus on his shit without being distracted by his coworkers and micromanaged by his boss. Especially for salaried employees, if the work gets done, who cares if you’re in your cube wearing pantyhose or on the couch in yoga pants?

To be fair, I work from home; every policy I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen tons) specifically forbids regularly caring for kids while working at home. You’re either working, or you’re not. I’ve seen plenty of parents (dads and moms) who work at home hire an in-home sitter for working hours, or they have an in-home spouse who does not work. Telecommuting is not a substitute for child care. Some employers may allow you to work while a child is home sick on occasion, but it’s very, very rare that they let someone work from home around childcare (and the only ones I’ve known who were close to doing this were dads).

That being said, as I mentioned, I work from home. All of the excuses that Yahoo! provided for their change are BS. If anything, all of those ‘impromptu meetings’ and ‘watercooler chats’ have wasted everyone’s time and reduced productivity, but have made micromanagers feel better. Of course, it depends on your job function, but that’s what Yahoo! is missing – it shouldn’t be a lateral one-size-fits-all decision as to what jobs are essential onsite. In one of my previous jobs where I worked onsite, most of the people I worked with didn’t even realize I was located onsite – for over two years. So why did I have to be there? Because management didn’t trust the employees. Who wants to work where they’re not respected?

Of course, not every job is appropriate for remote work, and not everyone has the discipline to work remotely. But for a tech company to say ‘we’re stuck in the stone age’ like this really means that they’re going to be the laughing stock of the tech world. I’ve heard speculation that this is merely a tactic to get rid of staff without having to pay severances, but if that’s true, it’s terribly short-sighted. Who’s going to even want to work there now that they’ve shown how little they care about their staff?

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