She's been at the forefront of the tech revolution but can Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer really get away with banning her staff from working from home?

Mayer stands out from her shabby but smart contemporaries with her taste for designer fashion

Amid the outpouring of protest generated by Marissa Mayer’s decree this week banning her employees at Yahoo! from working at home, it was hard to escape a refrain: how could she? Yahoo!’s CEO is a new mother.

She took the reins at the once-mighty tech business in the third trimester of her first pregnancy, inevitably spawning reams of commentary about what, if anything, her elevation meant for working women.

Now, by ordering her charges at Yahoo! into the office and thus, as one American headline put it, “dissing working moms”, Mayer once again finds herself at the centre of the same debate. The nursery she had built by her office, reportedly at her own expense, was fodder for her critics. She could do it because she’s the boss and, with a net worth frequently estimated to be in the region of $300m, she has the cash to spare. What about everyone else?

Mayer hasn’t responded to the controversy; in a statement, the company said simply that the move was about “what is right for Yahoo! right now”. But last year, when asked during a public discussion in California about balancing work and personal lives, Mayer said: “I don’t believe in balance, not in the classic way.”

It shows. At the same event, in conversation with Newsweek boss Tina Brown, Mayer was dismissive of the notion that everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night, three meals a day and time with their families. Her husband, Zack Bogue, a lawyer turned investor, attested to her workaholism in 2009, when he told Vogue magazine that she’d “converted me to bringing my laptop everywhere: you never know when you’ll get 15 minutes’ worth work done”. He also began sleeping an hour less a night.

Born to environmental engineer Michael and his wife Margaret in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1975, Mayer was always busy. At Wausau West High School, she played the piano, joined the math club, debated, did ballet and led the Spanish club, among other engagements. Years later, at Stanford, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems and a master’s in computer science, her extracurricular schedule was just as full: more debate and ballet, and volunteering and teaching.

Near the end of her time at university, she went looking for a job and received an offer from a number of start-ups. There was also one from McKinsey & Co. But consulting lost out to tech after she went to an interview at a scrappy new start-up called Google. It was April 1999. “I arrived and I was interviewed at a ping-pong table, which was also the company’s conference table,” she recounted in a 2009 BBC interview. “It was right when they were pitching for venture capital money, so actually after my interview, [Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin] left and took the entire office with them to the venture capitalists.” The office manager was left to apologise and ask her to return for the next round. Unperturbed, she came back to meet the whole company, and then for a final interview.

How did she pick Google over McKinsey? Mayer is said to have created a matrix, comparing not just salary, but also location, happiness and other parameters. She also ranked Google’s chance of succeeding compared with other start-ups. “I gave them a 2 per cent chance of success, where I gave all the other start-ups a .02 per cent chance of success,” she told NPR last year. After finishing at Stanford, she became Google’s employee No 20 and the company’s first female engineer.

In time, she was put in charge of the search engine’s homepage, its shop window to the world. That stint came to an end in 2010, when she moved – in what was seen as a demotion – to running the local and maps business at what by then had become a tech giant. The switch came with a place on Google’s operating committee of company bosses. But when Larry Page, whom she once dated, took over the day-to-day running of Google from Eric Schmidt in 2011, she was shuffled out of the new top team.

In the meantime, she had become a bona fide Silicon Valley celebrity, known not just as a capable geek and high-profile Googler but also as a glamorous host, with invitations to soirées at her penthouse atop the city’s Four Seasons hotel much sought after. In 2010, she hosted a $30,000-a-head fundraiser for President Obama at her Palo Alto home.

Mayer also stood out from her shabby but smart contemporaries in northern California with her taste for designer fashion. “She’s one of my biggest customers,” Oscar de la Renta told Vogue when it profiled Mayer, complete with glossy images of her in chic gear. In one, she is shown standing before a white screen in a dark dress and dark heels, holding – what else? – a laptop.

The world beyond the valley got to know her last year, when she was named Yahoo!’s fifth chief executive (and second female boss after Carol Bartz) in as many years. The appointment itself drew little attention outside the worlds of business and technology until, later on the same day, Mayer used Twitter to announce her pregnancy. “Another piece of good news today – @zackbogue and I are expecting a new baby boy!” When it came to maternity leave, she told Fortune that she liked to “stay in the rhythm of things”. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” she said in an interview published to coincide with her announcement.

The child was born at the end of September and, two weeks later, Mayer was back at work, having used the intervening period to also lure a former Google colleague, Henrique De Castro, to help her turn around Yahoo!. It’s a formidable task. Although Yahoo!’s services still attract hundreds of millions of users, its share of the search market has been in decline, and it’s lost out on advertising dollars to Google and Facebook.

Mayer is attempting to revitalise the business by focusing on personalising content for its users – a famous Google tactic – and in an era of smartphones and tablets, planning on hiring engineers who can build clever new applications for the still-growing market for mobile devices. Her changes went beyond the business strategy. Full time Yahoo!s – that’s what they call themselves – were given perks such as free food at certain company cafeterias. Mayer also replaced their phones. Out went the BlackBerrys and in came shiny new smartphones from Apple and Samsung. But she wasn’t simply being nice; Mayer wanted her employees to use the same phones that Yahoo! customers increasingly rely on to access the Web.

And what of her decision to end all work-from-home arrangements from June? The move has ruffled a few feathers both inside and outside Yahoo!. Renowned New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took Mayer to task this week. “She seems to believe that enough employees are goofing off at home that she should bring them off the cloud and into the cubicle,” Dowd wrote. “But she should also be sympathetic to the very different situation of women – and men – struggling without luxurious layers of help. Mayer has a nursery next to the executive suite. But not everyone has it so sweet.”

But there are former employees who have come out in defence. “For what it’s worth, I support the no-working-from-home rule. There’s a ton of abuse of that at Yahoo!, something specific to the company,” an ex-engineer confessed to Business Insider. Another former employee, Michael Katz, said: “Working from home may be convenient for some but it represents a huge opportunity cost to the team, especially a team that’s trying to turn things around.” The widely followed All Things D technology blog reported that the new boss had been “particularly irked” about the slow pace at which Yahoo! parking lots filled up in the morning, and the haste at which they emptied by 5pm – in contrast not just to other technology companies, but also Mayer’s own work ethic.

As a friend told New York magazine last year, “She will outwork you; she will outwork anybody.”

A life in brief

Born: Marissa Ann Mayer, 30 May 1975, Wausau, Wisconsin, US.

Family: Daughter of an art teacher and engineer. Married to lawyer and investor Zachary Bogue; they have one son.

Education: Wausau West High School; Stanford University with a BSc in symbolic systems and an MSc in computer science.

Career: Worked at the UBS research lab in Zurich, Switzerland, and SRI International in Menlo Park, before joining Google in 1999 as the company’s first female engineer, working her way up to vice president of local, maps and location services. Appointed president and CEO of Yahoo! in July 2012.

She says: “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.”

They say: “Mayer has a nursery next to the executive suite. But not everyone has it so sweet.” Maureen Dowd, author and columnist

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