What Your Reaction to Female Executives Says About You

With Marissa Mayer's new decree on telecommuting and Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist manifesto," everyone has an opinion about the feminine boss, but on what they're actually doing. Here's how we talk about women in power now.

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With Marissa Mayer declaring the end of telecommuting at Yahoo this week and Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist manifesto" Lean In coming out in 10 days, there has been plenty of talk about the failures and successes of our modern female role models — and not much of it has anything to do with what these women of power are actually trying to accomplish. These two have it all, apparently, because they've made it in dude-dominant Silicon Valley, while having a family, but that doesn't matter to their work. Indeed, most of the endless talk about and around Mayer's decision this week centered not on the somewhat meaningless decision itself so much as the decision-maker. So it goes for Sandberg's book, with the reviews pouring in today and spending a lot more time on the Facebook COO's demeanor than, you know, her book. But that's all par for the course these days when people are talking about ladies who do big things. Here's a (very) generalized breakdown of how we talk about women in power now:

Stage 1: The Somewhat Reasoned Backlash

The Reaction: First you get angry. Because when a woman makes a big decision, the pushback is that this must be bad for women — just not necessarily the actual women involved.

The Action: When Mayer announced her new rule — that every Yahoo employee had to come into the office every day — working moms who didn't work at Yahoo got mad. Sandberg's book Lean In, "a book focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions," has been criticized as "faux feminist."

Stage 2: The She's-a-Bad-Feminist Phase

The Reaction: This is the part where you use one woman to talk about how they're bad for all women.

The Action: Marissa Mayer is a bad feminist, in general, says this person, this person, and this person, connecting the work-at-home decision to comments she made over a year ago about the word "feminist." Hey, look! It's an excuse to talk about other women things pertaining to Marissa Mayer! Sandberg, who said before she wrote a book about working women that "there is no such thing as work life balance," now gets pulled into the whole work-life balance thing. Many have pointed to the fact that Sandberg left Google at 5:30 every day to have dinner with her children.

Stage 3: The Enemy Recalibration

The Reaction: Once you explore every angle of negativity, you become a defender.

The Action: At last, everyone realizes that these women have jobs to do! Beyond being "feminists"!  Also: Everyone kind of maybe starts to realize that maybe demonizing these women kind of hurts the cause more than, you know, watching them help their company's bottom line. Cases in point: "Marissa Mayer's Job Is to Be CEO—Not to Make Life Easier for Working Moms," from "Having It All" expert Anne Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic. "The monumental pressure on Sandberg to represent and address every single woman's circumstances is unfair," says the Huffington Post's Nisha Chittal. "Sandberg's book essentially gives us permission to be pushy broads. And the world needs more pushy broads," argues The Guardian's Jill Filipovic. Things like that.

Unfortunately, in the stumble that has become women talking about powerful women, you only get to the reasonable part of the conversation after you go through every possible iteration of figuring out how terrible all the powerful women are. Having bestowed them with the title of Women Who Have It All, we've set them up for failure with a ridiculous standard that they must address every societal answer for 50 percent of the work population. And that fails us all.

This sort of thing doesn't happen for men, by the way, as The Guardian's Heidi Moore noted on Twitter: "I mean, no man reads Good to Great worrying that it doesn't sympathize with guys working at McDonald's." And if that's not bad for women, what is?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.