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Marissa Mayer’s Faustian Bargain

Pulling up the Ladder at Yahoo

by ALFREDO LOPEZ

The recent order by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, forbidding Yahoo employees from doing their Yahoo work at home, might seem justified. After all, companies tell their employees what to do and Mayer might have good reasons for this edict. But the memo and its fallout raise serious and significant questions about technology, culture and women’s role in both.

Major technology corporations like Yahoo control so much of the information we have and how we exchange it that their policies find their way into our lives and help define our culture. This decision is a retrenchment in the collaborative way we work and the role of women in that collaboration. Its ironic that a woman who arises from collaborative culture would be an advocate for that retrenchment.

For many of us, life is like walking on a street of uneven pavement; at some point, you’re certain to stumble and fall. Marissa Mayer, in her 37 years of life, appears to have found an alternate route. Her profile reads like a fairy tale filled with corporate castles and technological blessings, begging the observer to search for some faustian bargain signed in computer code.

With a Master’s Degree from Stanford University, a top University for techies, she was one of the first employees at Google and ripped through 13 years of work there as a key team leader for, at one time or the other, Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Product Search, Google Toolbar, iGoogle and Gmail. She earned a well-deserved rep — replete with profiles in the industry press — as one of the keys to that mega-company’s dizzying success.

In July 2012, Yahoo (Google’s principal Internet rival) announced that Mayer would take over its reins and she simultaneously announced that she was pregnant. The glowing articles tumbled. She was, in the view of many technology and business writers, a prime example of the “new woman executive”: one who could produce profitable companies while producing babies, manage staff while managing a relationship, look “gorgeous” while looking serious and use the “female tools” of perks, compliments and inspiring speeches to motivate some staff while using the “male tools” of threats, firing, and marginalization to discipline others.

Although the profile is filled with highly questionable dichotomies and falsely back-lit by the mass media myth of a hermaphroditic corporate culture, it’s accurate in one sense: by all accounts, Mayer is a highly effective corporate manager and an outstanding technologist.

To add shine to the gleam, while planning Yahoo’s recovery strategy and its more aggressive involvement in “mobile Internet” (the use of phones and other mobile devices to use the Net), she gave birth to the baby whom she and her husband Zachary Bogu, a lawyer and investor, named Macalister.

Is there anything that can top that? Mayer was ready.

After working from home the last couple of weeks of her pregnancy, she took a two week maternity leave of absence after Macalister’s birth and then came back to work. Debates in the technology media immediately started: was she nuts, a superwoman or an oblivious fool?

None of the above, it turns out. Mayer had Yahoo build her a private nursery right next to her office. She paid for it out of her own money but her money comes from Yahoo; she makes a million a year in salary, two to four million in bonus payments and an equity award of up to $12 million. That’s every year. She also received one time payments totaling $54 million.

With easy access to her baby, a staff of care-givers, and a fully equipped nursery a few feet from her desk, Marissa Mayer began modeling corporate culture’s revision of the “successful American woman”, one that excludes most American women.

In one statement, she expressed surprise that motherhood “isn’t that hard”. As a father of two sons in their thirties, I can tell you that the first five months of a baby’s life aren’t the best measure of how “hard” it is. But anybody, with or without children, can understand how insensitive and dismissive of women that statement is. And she’s not that great on feminism either.

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist,” she said in the PBS documentary Makers. “I think that I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions. But I don’t, I think, have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there’s more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy.”

Given that clueless disdain for what the average woman takes on in her life and ridiculous ignorance about what feminism has contributed to women’s lives (including hers), Mayer’s latest atrocity is hardly surprising.

Marissa Mayer is obsessed with data. It’s how she reportedly makes all her decisions and, in this case, she looked at data and realized that many of the people who work at home at Yahoo weren’t logging into the Yahoo system enough. Productivity, this data told her, was “sub-par”. That, as they say, was that.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” reads the internal memo announcing Mayer’s decision from Yahoo’s HR head Jackie Reses. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

That reasonable-sounding memo says a lot more than it contains. Mayer runs a powerhouse in a specific industry based on a specific kind of technology about which two things are true: it has arisen through intense human collaboration and it is still controlled by white men. This decision serves to damage the first and institutionalize the second.

All human development — the very survival of the human race — has been a product of our instinctive drive to collaborate with others. We think collaboratively, we act collaboratively and we build societies that are collaborative. Corporations, with their peculiar newspeak, work tirelessly to bury that obvious truth.

Internet technology, one of the greatest collaborations in human history, counters that corporate propaganda. The process of developing most of the Internet’s tools (and that of the servers and computers that make it real) is a long road walked by millions of people who are constantly sharing ideas about what they’re doing and then collaboratively incorporate some of those ideas into the technology itself. It’s an open technology — anyone who can contribute to it effectively is encouraged to do so and anyone who uses it is encouraged to offer reactions, suggestions and criticisms.

But the stuff Yahoo does has little of the back and forth that has made the real Internet strong. That’s because real development requires open and public sharing of code and data, encouraging people to take and expand it. Companies hide their code because the only thing they want to expand is their profit. They restrict open collaboration because they want to “protect” the ideas they have taken from open source developers and copy-righted.

All of this open development is conducted by people who live far away from each and often have never never met in person. That’s the only way humanity can work together on software. It’s a model for the kind of society that makes corporations cringe.

Sure, sometimes “stay at home” policies don’t work but deciding what to do about that needs more than a data analysis. Maybe the problem isn’t lazy employees but that the structure of a corporation doesn’t advance the creativity and collaboration we all need. Maybe it is Mayer’s definition of “work”; maybe an employee spending a whole day surfing the web for ideas and conversations about some project he or she is working on is more valuable than logging into Yahoo’s main system.

I don’t know but it doesn’t matter. That kind of analysis is not going to come from Marissa Mayer. Like many technology corporate executives, she doesn’t “get” collaboration.

She also seems to be enveloped in a cloud about women.

Corporate technology’s virulent sexism may not be apparent to the average person because the industry does a good job of putting on a false face: there are women commentators and analysts who report and comment on the industry; there are women who work in the marketing and sales departments of big tech companies; there are women who “rep” these companies at conferences.

But the technology, the development teams that maintain, improve and broaden it, and the companies that market it are male-dominated. The big-time conferences are dominated by men. The major software and hardware development is dominated by men. Mayer is such a phenomenon herself because most technology companies are run and managed by men.

You can’t put a system in designer clothing, put it on a massage table, put a fruit drink in its hand and say it is no longer the exploitative, destructive mess-maker it has always been. Capitalism’s remarkable genius is the ability to make a few people’s lives materially better and then build a culture which convinces them that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. So we go to Happy Hour without thinking that a fifth of the human race has no drinking water and we applaud the rise of women executives without realizing that, world-wide, women are worse off than they have been in decades.

While women in the United States are confronting constant attempts to shave their fundamental rights of citizenship (such as the so-called “abortion debate”), they are also struggling to survive in this country and dying in many other parts of the world. Here in the United States, as the work of Barbara Ehrenreich has proven (especially in her book Nickeled and Dimed), most women can’t make ends meet on the salaries of the work available to them and, when they’re not being beaten, vilified as an occasion of sin, denied education and social advancement or pushed into some social closet, women in much of the rest of the world are starving.

To celebrate the rise of one woman to fame and fortune as an indication that things have changed for women is a bizarre instance of mega-myopia. Nothing’s changed in so many areas that the changes that have actually taken place become thinner and more ephemeral. You can’t change the reality of women by changing it for a few of them and when you do it that way, as our society has done, you end up frustrating the very reason for having women in leadership. You also create people who are capable of saying, about childbirth and feminism, what Marissa Mayer has said.

While many glibly tag feminism as being some kind of “opportunities for the gifted program” or make the easily disproven claim that all women benefit from the success of a few women, the only acceptable purpose in changing the gender demographics of centers of influence and power is to change the centers of influence and power. But most women who enter the ranks of corporate privilege don’t change these institutions; those institutions have changed them.

For decades now, these few women have been making that faustian deal. They rise to a position within a company and quickly learn to say “I don’t consider myself a feminist.” Nothing new there. It’s almost part of the culture of many industries — including, as I learned long ago, mainstream journalism — and it’s apparently part of Marissa’s world. That’s code. It says “I’m here. I’m a woman. But I’m not a threat. I’ll just try and act like you.”

They not only don’t change the technology industry’s culture but they actually serve to further entrench it.

When something is controlled by men, it starts to look, sound and act male. With its curt abbreviations, its “one sentence” communication, its nasty exchanges, its emphasis on arcane code and unclear logic, and its impatience with “the problems” caused by people who are actually using the stuff, the Internet technologist community can often be like a High School boys’ locker room in the late afternoon.

How would it be different with a strong presence of women? I don’t know; it hasn’t happened. But I do know how Yahoo’s deceptively simple order will make it much more difficult for women to integrate technology. It entrenches the limited choices women have to make — raise kids or work. It forces women into the arena of male domination as any woman who has worked in an office dominated by men will tell you. It makes company spying on female exployees work hours communications easier and can lead to cutting off the opportunity to collaborate with other women (outside the company) world-wide. It just makes work more difficult and that is something women definitely do not need right now.

Will all this happen with every woman? Absolutely not. Some will overcome these obstacles. But there is no good reason to force women to overcome obstacles in order to contribute to humanity’s life.

I don’t think Marissa Mayer is purposely targeting women. I think she just doesn’t care. Her action is a reflection of the jolting self-absorption that is the fulcrum of corporate executive culture.

There’s really only one way to combat this. We build on our own achievement: the huge, free, open and powerful Internet that is constantly reinventing itself as it reinvents our culture and forces us to embrace collaboration once again. We work consciously to build a culture in which women are comfortable, supported and encouraged to contribute. With our work and commitment, we answer Marissa Mayer’s comments and thinking and we march forward into a world that her data can’t describe.

ALFREDO LOPEZ is the newest member of the TCBH! collective. A long-time political activist and radical journalist, and founding member of the progressive web-hosting media service MayFirst/PeopleLink, he lives in Brooklyn, NY