It's been a tough few days for top women in the workplace.
First, Sheryl Sandberg caused some consternation when advance reports about her book "Lean In" appeared. The top female Facebook exec, a multimillionaire who's hosted a fundraiser for the president, says in the book that leaning in to your job means working with more gusto and time commitment and less complaining and avoiding big challenges. Easy for her to say, said those who aren't fabulously rich or ridiculously well-connected.
And while Facebook's Sandberg was busy leaning in, Marissa Mayer was busy stepping in it at Yahoo (YHOO). Mayer, as you no doubt know, knocked Silicon Valley off its axis when the super mom and super CEO presided over a new order that says all Yahoos must work from their offices. Mayer works from her office, after all, the one complete with the nursery she paid to have built so she could spend more time with her newborn son while at Yahoo.
You've got to figure there are plenty of working moms (and probably some working dads) who would love the opportunity to lean into that kind of arrangement.
The dual dust-ups set off by Sandberg and Mayer underscore how raw the subject of balancing work and family remains in the valley. In a vacuum, what Sandberg is proposing and what Mayer is ordering seem fairly compelling.
Sandberg is launching a book and a movement, complete with "Lean In Circles" -- groups of women gathering to share strategies and experiences from the front lines of life. As detailed in a New York Times story last week, she writes that women hold themselves back by not volunteering for challenging projects and by "pulling back when we should be leaning in." She says women shouldn't sacrifice work advancement because they plan to have children some day and that they should push for sharing housework equally with their husbands.
And Mayer's policy is meant to foster more creativity and better communication by having co-workers actually run into each other at work.
But we don't live in a vacuum, and the fact is that Sandberg and Mayer share some traits that make their advice appear out of touch. Not only did both women work at Google (GOOG) and rise to national prominence in the business world; both are filthy rich, giving them the ability to afford squadrons of household help. And both are incredibly powerful, giving them the ability to get things done the way they want them done.
They are also in a very exclusive club of high-ranking female executives in Silicon Valley, which means their every move gets extraordinary scrutiny.
And so, the question is: Are these two brilliant, powerful working mothers actually oblivious to the sensitivities and struggles of people working for a living in Silicon Valley?
Take Sandberg, who has been a major player in business and politics; a person who commands a room and a staggering personal fortune. Does she think a typical worker can will herself into power and prestige simply by leaning in?
Or take Mayer's decision to put a stop to employees working from home. It's hard to imagine a move with worse optics, a move that is less in keeping with what Silicon Valley is all about.
This is a place where talent rules, where it doesn't matter how you get your job done just as long as you get it done well and fast. This is the place that created the home office and launched hundreds of businesses from them (particularly if you count garages). It is the place that has made an art of blurring the boundaries between work life and everything else in life.
How could these two women appear to be so tone-deaf when it comes to the pressures of everyday life?
I have a theory. Maybe the uproar didn't erupt because the two women touched on gender inequality. Maybe the uproar erupted because the women's thinking touches on class inequality. Mayer and Sandberg are among the superrich, and while typical Facebook and Yahoo employees are hardly downtrodden, it might be hard for either woman to relate to the everyday struggles of workers who scramble for child care, drive themselves to work and meetings, make meals for themselves and their families, etc.
Whatever the case, we haven't heard the last from these women, nor have we heard the last about these issues. Sandberg is going to be leaning in to a big-time media blitz to promote her book and her movement. And Mayer's move will be scrutinized for every defection and any sign that flagging morale at Yahoo is outweighing whatever advantage comes from having everyone in their offices.
In fact it's possible these past few tough days are only the beginning.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.