A Woman’s Right to Work

Two of the most high profile female tech executives have made statements recently that promise to bring the issue of a woman’s place in the workforce to the forefront once again.

Politico released an article Monday reporting that Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook have come under fire for their controversial views on what should be expected of working women, particularly in Silicon Valley. Sandberg made her views explicit by publishing her book entitled ‘Lean In’, urging career driven women to ‘become more aggressive and more self promoting’, according to Politico.Sandberg believes that women remain less able to negotiate effectively for high pay and assert themselves, and as a result, see less success at work.

Perhaps more subtle but also more interesting was Mayer’s decision to require telecommunication workers to report to the office every day instead of working from home. Mayer’s decision didn’t come with its own philosophical manifesto on the role that women ought to play in the workforce, but rather was presented for what it was, a business decision. Mayer is the CEO of a struggling company, and reportedly believed that face-to-face interaction and workplace cohesion would increase productivity, and ultimately she, like any other executive might be expected to, made her decision because it was best for business.

Mayer’s decision presents two very interesting questions for the reader. Was Mayer’s decision unfair to her employees with children? And does Mayer, or any business owner for that matter, owe any special privileges to women? Given the outrage, it seems clear that not being able to work from home presents, if not a barrier, at least an inconvenience to women, especially with young children.

However, given Mayer’s decision, it’s plausible that having workers stay home instead of going into the office could present an unaffordable cost to a company, and it’s not clear that a business, particularly a struggling one, should carry any extra burdens and risk laying off workers or closing its doors. What if, by accommodating fully for some of her female employees with children, she was forced to lay off others? Or by satisfying her female employees she was forced to lay off some of her male employees? In a world of scarcity it doesn’t seem obvious why one group should take priority over another.

Its a common argument that since there is no apparent economic value for raising children, society should not bear the burden for granting women–that is to say, mothers–special privileges. Instead, some say, businesses should accommodate working women–especially non-mothers– so that they can remain economically sufficient and retain enough economic power to not be dependent on anyone. A man could simply choose to divorce his-stay-at-home wife, the argument goes, leaving her with no income of her own and thus, no power. This narrative is likely a result of the serious breakdown of the marriage culture in our country, but absent of a societal solution to this problem, it remains a possibility than many women unfortunately do face. One of the clearest economics flaws of this argument is that it makes an artificial distinction between dependency on a spouse and dependency on a company. Whether supported by a husband or by a company going out of its way to accommodate you beyond your economic value, when the going gets tough, a woman runs the risk of being let go.

This is not to say that women must make a choice between a career and motherhood, but only that, privileges for women, as for men, must be earned. In my father’s small firm, he is more than willing to negotiate work from home privileges with many female employees on his staff, not because he believes they are somehow entitled to them, but because they have proven themselves to be extremely valuable engineers and accommodating them is what it takes to get them to stay. Ultimately, the only way to retain economic power is to make yourself a valuable asset, and neither government intervention nor public shaming of companies will change this reality.