She Can’t Sleep No More

The political economy of Marissa Mayer.

Marissa Mayer was recently made CEO of Yahoo, the struggling online media giant. The board knew they needed a sort of miracle, something so extraordinary that it’d jolt the company into success, so they took a deep breath, prayed and threw a Hail Mary pass: they hired a pregnant woman. A pregnant woman who had occupied the top tier of Google, but still a rare bird. A few months later, Mayer received a further plaudit, albeit a less lucrative one: she topped Business Insider’s list of “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep.” “She used to put in 130 hour weeks [when she worked] at Google,” explained Insider, and “she managed that schedule by sleeping under her desk and being ‘strategic’ about her showers.”

In an office environment in which success depends on being “strategic” about hygiene, personal time is taken like a Jetson’s meal pill: compressed, trivial, quickly swallowed. Employees, to get ahead, not only work all the hours of the day, but all the hours not in the day, and sleep on the couch with pens slipping from their hands like college students. The ideal worker is the worker whose whole meaningful life happens within the four walls of the office, or whose wage work has expanded to fill the home. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the tech world, land of startups, where one is supposed to identify with the company absolutely.

Silicon Valley’s countercultural vibe has long masked its Wall Street-style labor discipline: a heavy emphasis on smartness, flexibility, and willingness to work more grueling hours than the guy next to you. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has even confessed to “sneaking” out of the office to have dinner with her family so as not to run afoul of overwrought office cultures. So intense is the work expectation that the biography of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs has become a sort of Bible for the aspiringly sleep-deprived. A Wired journalist quotes Steve Davis, the CEO of a software company serving financial institutions, and a professed Jobs acolyte, living the dream. “He explained that he had consciously set aside certain aspects of his family life, since he believes that startups fail when those involved aren’t committed to being available 24 hours a day. Luckily, Davis told me, he was blessed with a wife who picked up the slack.”

The journalist doesn’t say whether Davis’s wife has a job, but if she does, she will likely star in her own magazine article, one in which she “has it all,” hearth and boardroom. Feminism is the latest movement warped into the service of money making, with a new crop of Silicon Valley bosses — Mayer and Sandberg chief among them — celebrated as icons of female achievement. Nary an article about Mayer goes by without wide-eyed appreciation of her miracle birth. She has achieved something greater than the Virgin Mary: becoming pregnant without losing her bonus. And she is super excited about it. “The baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be,” Mayer said at the 2012 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. She won’t take maternity leave.

Rather than a reflection of Mayer, this is an impressive absorption of female biology into a reinforcement of the work ethic. Everyone knows that men can work all the time by ignoring their families. But women give birth. They’re natural nurturers. What if they can perform both roles and somehow center motherhood and CEOship? She becomes a superworker, “balancing” two loads too heavy to be borne in any proportion. Women insist that they can “do it all” so as not to appear disadvantaged in comparison to their male colleagues; this scrabbling not to be left behind merely legitimizes the insane work ethic. Women’s desire to break the glass ceiling right under Jobs’s feet — Mayer has referred to him as one of her heroes on Twitter — reinforces the importance of a brutal, dehumanizing schedule. Women can do that too. Only more.

The way this is done by someone like Mayer isn’t a mystery: she hires multiple nannies, a fleet of cars, all the help she could want. But she represents an ideal for the non-millionaire women out there: having it all by doing it all, running the show without losing that most important female credential — motherhood. Mayer does it all by being rich. Most women aren’t so lucky, still doing on average two more hours of housework a day than men and working for wages all the while.

Which points toward the core of the “having it all” debates: time is a feminist issue. Time is a feminist issue because we don’t actually want women to have to birth babies in cyborg wombs — pace Shulamith Firestone — if they’re going to hold their own in society. Pregnancy accounts for a great deal of the wage gap because women take time off or are fired before they can ask for a break. It indicates a vast realm of work — the famed “second shift” — that women perform without compensation in addition to the wage labor they perform outside of the home. This labor mostly falls to women, but it raises questions of pace and time for all workers — one shouldn’t be penalized for no longer being able to sleep under one’s desk. Because it’s barbaric.

The practices in Silicon Valley power centers put the lie to any concept of work life “balance.” As theorist Kathi Weeks likes to say, this is a site of contradiction, not mere imbalance, the contradiction between production and reproduction that has long existed for women. How one combines the two is dictated to a great degree by the economy; you can bet that if it was popularly believed that the American economy was suffering due to a lack of female middle management, all efforts to relieve working women of home duties would be celebrated, rather than held up to “but is she a good mother?” scrutiny.

Silicon Valley adds another twist to this formula — many of the women rising to the top are doing so in an office culture that is relentlessly sexist, but also dedicated to building products that focus on the “social factory.” The term sounds coined for and by people seeking degrees in media theory, but it’s a useful descriptor for the work we do commodifying our social relationships: think Facebook profiting from our clicks and Twitter from our tweets. As Jacobin contributing editor Melissa Gira Grant points out in a forthcoming Dissent essay, Facebook was driven from the get-go by men’s relationships to women. It originated as Facemash, a sort of “hot or not” for Harvard women, in Mark Zuckerberg’s dormroom.

Employees at such social media companies now are required to maintain profiles themselves and operate as model users. Grant notes that Facebook hired a photographer to take their workers’ social media photographs, and employed photographers at all events so that the glamour could be shared in a brand-building exercise premised on the attractiveness of employees. The post-Fordist workplace makes more porous the barrier between personal and professional, and therefore the boundaries between work and home.

The second shift is now something of a permanent shift. Even after every job is done for the day, one updates Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter. Free time is enclosed for an uncompensated personal branding exercise important to a corporate world eager to use up workers’ personalities alongside their skill sets. Users may not perceive their experience this way, but social media companies profit directly from clicks and the impetus such sites create to “keep up” are a form of subtley imposed labor. And it means that there is absolutely no time that cannot be dedicated to work. There is no work life balance because work makes its way into life and life is the raw material with which to brand oneself for work.

Even bearing a child, human life, supports office life. In a New York magazine profile of Mayer, the writer noted: “that the Yahoo board — and Mayer herself — have so successfully capitalized on [her pregnancy] may be evidence, at last, that fertility, intellect, and big ambition can sometimes co-exist. Together they can even be a kind of selling point.” A woman who is evidently both unorthodox and hardworking by virtue of her mid-career pregnancy sells well to beleaguered corporate boards.

Radical feminist progress has long been premised on technological development — women depend on birth control, for instance, but also on washing machines and dishwashers to save them from overwhelming burdens. In a world of four-hour work weeks, the care work of raising a family would presumably get the time it deserves. But the technological evolution of social media as a form has broken down the concept of work life balance — simply commodifying a more intimate realm — creating a case study in the uses to which technology will be put under capitalism.

The mad, profit-driven world of Silicon Valley startups traffics in a sexism that makes clear how little women have to gain from the world of tech as it stands. The last few years have seen one contretemps after the other — tech companies make use of scantily clad women in ads, at showcase booths, and in Powerpoints. As Mother Jones writer Tasneem Raja noted in April, “a company’s product is shaped by the people who make it.”

And as of 2011, 80% of programmers are dudes. Raja takes the iPhone’s Siri feature as an example; the voice-automated robot helper, upon its launch, could find escort services, but not an abortion clinic. Feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte had discovered this and reported that “the problem is that the very real and frequent concerns of women simply didn’t rise to the level of a priority for the programmers. Even though far more women will seek abortion in their lives than men will seek prostitutes . . . the programmers were far more worried about making sure the word ‘horny’ puts you in contact with a prostitute (a still-illegal activity) than the word ‘abortion’ puts you in contact with someone who could do that for you legally.” This is not merely to suggest that a high degree of Philistinism pervades Silicon Valley. The problem is deeper. Technology as it is being developed paints a veneer of innovation — progress! — over an industry that, for the same reason porn and Bud Light do good business, has encouraged a culture of profitable brogramming that does not serve women. There is no point pretending that the Silicon Valley verison of technology will enhance some sort of feminist project, no matter how many women sit at the tip-top.

It will not shock anyone reading this that the realm over which Marissa Mayer presides is often more oriented toward images of women than the needs of women, and that a particularly sexist work realm is very happy to promote female CEOs as representative of its enlightened future. Cutting edge technologies, instead of being designed to make the grunt work of life easier, are merely commodifying increasingly intimate parts of our existence. Technology hasn’t been oriented toward letting us sleep eight hours and still make a living, but has served to make an inhumane work ethic look progressive, innovative, feminist. Silicon Valley culture and the cult of the CEO encourage the belief that everyone’s realm of empowerment is in the unsleeping pursuit of success, bonus if your baby proves that nothing will stop you.

Do you buy it? Mayer won’t sleep until you do.