The new CEO of a struggling Fortune 500 company in need of a turnaround recently decided to kill a popular flexible work program, even though it boosted employee productivity and morale, reduced turnover, cut costs and eased stress.
Marissa Mayer, you say? The 37-year-old Silicon Valley wunderkind and new Yahoo CEO, whose decision to ban telework has been met with howls of outrage, accusations of betrayal and endless dissection in the media?
Try Hubert Joly.
Welcome to what social scientists say is a common double bind for women leaders. Women are so rare in the upper echelons of power — 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs — that their every move is closely watched, harshly judged and often found wanting. Especially when it comes to how they treat other women.
Joly, the new chief executive officer of Best Buy, announced recently that he was ending the innovative, flexible work style the company pioneered — Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE — that defined work as something you do, not someplace you go, and gave employees control over when and where they did it.
Both Mayer’s and Joly’s decisions were momentous steps away from the flexible work schedules that enable employees to do good work and also have lives. But we’ve turned the klieg lights on Marissa Mayer. Most people have never heard of Hubert Joly.
“This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to be a female executive,” said Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California at Hastings who has been following the fallout from Mayer’s decision. “Everything you do is hyper-scrutinized. And you are completely judged if you don’t put a particular social agenda — advancing women — incredibly high on your priority list in a way that men don’t have to. Mayer bans flexible work and we can’t stop talking. Men do this all the time and we just never hear about it.”
Brian T. Moynihan? Heard of him?
The CEO of Bank of America, who made $12 million in 2012, decided recently to scale back a telework program that more than 15,000 workers in 42 states used and which, the company once boasted, saved $6,000 per employee every year. The announcement, which registered nary a blip on the national radar, came on the heels of his decision to close the bank’s popular on-site child-care centers around the country and to lay off 30,000 employees.
How about John Berry? The head of the Office of Personnel Management announced in March that he, too, had killed a pilot ROWE program for 400 government employees. This despite the fact that research is finding that while chance face-to-face meetings can lead to the generation of ideas — what Mayer is aiming for — bringing those ideas to life requires solitary, uninterrupted time to concentrate, often far from most offices’ noisy cubicle nations.
Yet Mayer has been derided as the “Stalin of Silicon Valley” and depicted by bloggers as a “Queen Bee” who has clawed her way to the top of the heap and is busily shoving other women off with her turquoise-fringed Manolos. (Yes, several articles have been written about the kind of shoes she wears, her trips to the salon for blond highlights and her love of Oscar de la Renta.)
No one is fixated on Joly’s looks. (Corporate. Gray hair. Clear-framed glasses. Needs sun.) And, unlike with Mayer, no one’s called him a traitor to his sex.
Because the truth, as Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute has found in workforce surveys, is that the people who telework and work flexibly the most are . . . men.
In fact, while everyone’s been so busy ripping on Mayer for failing to help working mothers, what’s gotten lost is the fact that a growing number of working fathers are the ones rushing out the door to make the 6 p.m. child-care pickup. And that Galinksy’s research has found it’s not just working mothers who want flexible schedules. It’s nearly 90 percent of all workers.
And while it’s true that the Workplace Bullying Institute has found that female bosses tend to pick on other women 80 percent of the time, their surveys also show that there are far more cases of male bosses being horrible to male underlings.
Yet there is no Queen Bee equivalent for a bad male boss focused on his own rise, not yours.
Mayer’s predicament illustrates perfectly the double standard found by Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization that studies the advancement of women in business, politics, academia and other fields. Female leaders, Catalyst researchers write, are “damned if they do, doomed if they don’t.” If they’re too tough, too masculine, they’re Queen Bees. If they’re too soft, too feminine, they’re ineffective leaders. Deemed either likable or competent, they’re rarely judged “just right.” We expect men to take charge, the group concluded. We expect women to nurture us.
So it should come as no surprise that we know everything about Mayer’s two-week micro-maternity leave and the private nursery she’s built for her son next to her office. And that Joly’s corporate profile makes no mention of his family.
We expect female leaders to “get” how difficult it is to juggle the competing demands of work and life, Williams said. We are shocked when they don’t. Yet we pigeonhole them as “women managers” if they do.
“There’s a delicate line that you have to work hard not to cross,” said Anastasia Kelly, co-managing partner for the Americas and a top executive of the law firm DLA Piper. “I am certainly out to make sure that all the lawyers are treated well, but particularly women, because we have a lot of work to do. At the same time, as the only woman in the office of the chair, I have to be careful so I’m not looked at as only being a female advocate.” (Women have made up about half of all law school graduates since the 1990s, yet only 16 percent have made it to the top ranks of law firms.)
Ellen Ostrow, a D.C.-based psychologist who coaches female lawyers, many at the most senior levels, said female leaders often fall into two camps. “I see senior women who absolutely take the stance: ‘I had to sacrifice, so don’t come whining to me about wanting flexibility,’ ” she said. “I also see plenty of senior women who say: ‘I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I’m glad to be here in a position of power to make it easier for a young woman.’ ”
And she has seen plenty of male-dominated work environments blind to the double bind they have created for female leaders. Once, she was called in by a major law firm to coach the only female senior partner, an employee who brought in a lot of business but was considered a nightmare to work for. Ostrow investigated and found that the woman did need to improve her communication and team-building skills. But Ostrow also found that she was introverted and shy rather than cold and inaccessible.
“The thing that was so astonishing to me was that I found out about the horrendously bad leadership of all these men at the firm. They were back-stabbing her in just awful ways,” Ostrow said. “I went to the head of the firm and said: ‘You’ve got a bigger problem here. Why are you putting her in a position of being the only one coached when you have all these other jerks?’ They said there was nothing they could do about it.”
In her long career as a senior executive, during which she was often the only woman in a position of power, Linda Madrid, now managing director of executive search firm DHR International’s Washington office, has often found herself in the same double bind.
“I perhaps didn’t fit the stereotype that folks were looking for — more jovial, friendly, collegial. It’s not that I’m not those things. But I was a senior legal officer in a serious legal role, and I’m a pretty serious person,” she said. “And there is a supposition that women who are in powerful positions are power-seekers, while men are perceived as driven, ambitious. It’s challenging.”
Motherhood can often complicate things.
A very pregnant Laura Possessky had just been elected to a top leadership position at the D.C. Bar Association when a male colleague confronted her and asked how she planned to balance the job with having a baby.
“I looked at him and said: ‘Well, my predecessor had just had a baby when he was elected, and he seemed to manage. So I guess I’ll do what he did,’ ” she said. “It’s challenging when you’re a woman in leadership. But when you’re a mother, it adds a whole new dimension. You have to deal with the judgments that you’re a mom first, so everything you do is tied to your role as a mother rather than your work. And if you don’t act that way, then you’re judged a bad mom. It’s lose-lose.”
The classic stereotype of the Queen Bee — a term coined in 1973 by psychologists studying the effect of the women’s movement on the workplace — is a woman who has sacrificed everything to get where she is, worked harder than any man and expects everyone else to do the same.
Indeed, two Dutch studies have found that precisely because they’re so rare, women execs tend to be less sympathetic to other women and the strains of care-giving.
“They’re not dummies,” Joan Williams explained. “Successful women in male-dominated environments are less likely to identify with other women. That’s why they’re successful. Marissa Mayer always said she wasn’t a ‘girl’ at Google, she was a ‘geek’ at Google. It’s just the politically savvy thing to do.”
Queen Bees are not necessarily out to sabotage other women. But, Williams said, they have bought into a 1950s workplace culture that rewards a man who can devote his life to work because he has a wife at home taking care of everything else.
S., a finance professional in Northern Virginia who asked to be identified only by her first initial, described working for one such Queen Bee.
“She was a total workaholic. She was the first person to come, the last to go. She expected people to work 12, 14 hours a day. My kids were 6 and 8 at the time and I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” S. said. When S. asked for a flexible schedule, or to just work 40 hours a week, her boss suggested that she hire a nanny.
“I said, ‘No, a nanny can’t replace me.’ ”
S. quit, found a flexible job and now happily works from home.
Deidre McCabe, who has a master’s degree in journalism, spent years trying to put together a job-share with another reporter at the Baltimore Sun so she could have a saner life. Her husband had an unpredictable schedule. Kid duty fell to her. And she was putting in 10- and 12-hour workdays.
“They just didn’t want people to leave,” she said. “They loved the guys who stayed in the newsroom 24/7.”
After years of stalling, managers said the two women could each work six months of the year. “I said, ‘Do you people even understand how day-care works?’ ” McCabe recalled saying. “ ‘I’m not looking for time off. I’m looking for a manageable workweek.’ ”
Then she was called into the office of a top editor, an older, single woman.
“She told us: ‘I don’t have anything in my fridge other than a jar of mayonnaise. But that’s the sacrifice we make,’ ” McCabe recalled. “ ‘You guys want to be reporters. Okay. But don’t think you’re going to have a happy family life. It’s one or the other.’ ”
McCabe stayed two more years, working full-time. “I loved what I did,” she said. Then she left. But the story of the mayonnaise jar lived on. “All that work I did. All those years. No one remembers my journalism,” said McCabe, who now has four children and has worked part-time as a writer ever since. “But they do remember the mayonnaise jar.”
The Washington area’s heady, workaholic culture, in which men hold most of the power, has produced its share of women derided as Queen Bees. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have made Washingtonian magazine’s annual Best and Worst of Congress lists as among the meanest bosses, as determined by a survey of Hill staffers.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) was recently named the worst boss on Capitol Hill after the Washington Times analyzed a decade of pay records and found that about half her staff quits every year. Lee’s former legislative director, Mona Floyd, is suing the lawmaker for piling on the work and failing to give Floyd, who has a vision disability, breaks to rest her eyes. Jackson’s demands kept Floyd at work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., she argues in her U.S. District Court complaint.
(That particular grievance, however, is unlikely to get Floyd much sympathy from anyone who works on Capitol Hill. Cathy Travis, a longtime Hill staffer, has just published a “Manifesto” on how to survive on the Hill: Put in “backbreaking hours,” she writes.)
Laurie Susan Fulton, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, has been blasted by the State Department’s inspector general for being a sometimes “harsh,” “sharp” and “unpredictable” nightmare of a boss. Washington lobbyist Jeanne M. Campbell, who was forced to pay $800,000 plus nearly half a million dollars in attorney’s fees for allegedly sexually harassing a Serbian personal trainer she hired as a VP, made eBossWatch’s list of the 100 worst bosses of 2012.
Cynthia Stroum, former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, also made it onto eBossWatch’s national list of worst bosses for being “aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating,” according to an IG report. Two of her employees in the cushy post asked for transfers . . . to Iraq and Afghanistan.
None of the women responded to phone calls and e-mails save for Stroum, who offered a more complicated picture.
“Upon arriving in Luxembourg, I quickly realized that the Embassy had been grappling with systemic operational problems for more than a decade, including financial mismanagement and low staff morale,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In retrospect, I was ill-equipped and unprepared to manage the challenging situation I had inherited. . . . My resignation still stings and I wish my appointment had ended differently.”
To Ellen Ostrow, the Queen Bee syndrome is a reminder how out of sync the workplace is with the reality of people’s lives.
“No man had to make the kind of sacrifice that the women we’re calling Queen Bees have had to make,” she said. “And as much as I don’t like how some of these women treat younger women, I feel sad for them. They had to sacrifice so much to be where they are. Their whole identity is wrapped up in their position. And they don’t fit in anywhere.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and a former Mayer colleague at Google, has created her own media storm with her new book and “Lean In” movement aimed at getting more women into leadership positions. That, she argues, will help end the reign of the so-called Queen Bee and lead to “fairer treatment of all women.”
But will it?
Mavin — who coined the term “Venus Envy” to describe the sometimes simmering hostility between women in management — said some studies have found that when female leaders make up a critical mass of at least 20 percent, they are more likely to change workplace culture than simply try to fit into it. Then workers, who tend to react to female bosses as women and to male bosses as bosses, may begin to see them differently.
“Women executives are still as rare as pandas, a scarce breed in an unnatural habitat,” Mavin said. “But the more women become normalized in positions of power, the more likely society is to accept them on their own terms.”
Researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.