As Facebook gets political, where is Sandberg's pro-family push?

By David Sirota , written on December 26, 2013

From The News Desk

If you are using your paid vacation time to take time off this week, consider yourself fortunate -- or at least more fortunate than the 55 million Americans who do not get any paid vacation time at all.

You should feel similarly fortunate if you used (or are planning to use) any paid maternity leave -- you are one of only 11 percent of women in America whose employers provide such leave.

Oh, and if you got sick this season and were able to take a day off without worrying about losing a day's pay, you were also more fortunate than the 40 million American workers who do not get paid sick days.

If exceptionalism is defined as a nation standing out from its peers, then these stats  prove America is exceptional. This is the world's only advanced industrialized country that does not mandate any paid vacation days, it is the only such country that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and it is the only such country that does not mandate paid sick days. This is exceptionalism's Terrible Trifecta™ -- a family-crushing, morale-destroying reality whose persistence derives at least in part from a pervasive passivity most recently articulated by Sheryl Sandberg.

In the lead up to this year's holiday season, the Facebook COO told's conference that corporate managers should approach their employees about those employees' plans to have children. In her "Lean In" argot, she encouraged managers to tell their underlings: "If you want to have children I'm not going to give the good [opportunities] to someone else because you're pregnant and I'm going to help you take a leave and come back if that's what you want to do."

At first glance, this might not seem like passivity -- it might seem like forward-thinking assertiveness. And certainly, if you set aside the thorny legal problems with managers interrogating workers about family planning decisions, Sandberg's general sentiment seems motivated in part by a genuine concern for basic human rights (that presumption is buttressed by the fact that Facebook -- like other Silicon Valley giants - does provide decent maternity leave for its employees).

However, what ultimately makes Sandberg's superficially progressive rhetoric so passive is its disconnection from attendant political action. Her words are great and important, but they haven't been accompanied by legislative leadership that might guarantee those benefits for all workers -- not just the relatively few who happen to work for Sandberg.

To be sure, Sandberg is better than lots of other executives in that she has said she conceptually supports paid leave laws. But, according to Forbes, she has qualified her support by suggesting such legislation should ideally be yet another taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy rather than a straightforward mandate.

What’s more, while Facebook under Sandberg has been ramping up its spending on political lobbying, and while Sandberg is a seasoned political operative with personal experience managing Facebook-branded legislative initiatives, there is little evidence (beyond perhaps its general support for the multi-issue Center for American Progress) that the company has directed major resources specifically to the state-based and national campaigns backing paid vacation, maternity, and sick leave legislation (or even legislation to strengthen laws barring discrimination against pregnant women). There is proof, though, that during Sandberg’s tenure, Facebook has been working with and supporting the American Legislative Exchange Council, which leads the fight against such legislation.

Of course, the dollars and cents argument against Facebook devoting company resources to the push for vacation, maternity, and sick leave legislation is that such expenditures would betray shareholders by supposedly prioritizing a moral cause over corporate profits. The idea is that while a Facebook exec like Sandberg may personally support something like paid leave legislation, that cause supposedly isn't related to the company's bottom line, and so the company has no business spending shareholder money on it.

But, then, through its top executives' personal contributions, Facebook already funds various causes that are not directly related to the firm's day-to-day business operations. Even more germane is the fact that paid sick, parental and vacation leave legislation very much could be a self-interested bottom-line lobbying mission for companies like Facebook.

Think about it: Facebook already provides sick, parental, and vacation benefits while some other (often smaller) tech firms do not. New federal paid-leave laws would force all of Facebook's US rivals to compete with Facebook on a more level employee-benefit playing field. These laws wouldn't increase Facebook's current costs, because the company already provides the mandated benefits. At the same time, though, Facebook's US competitors who currently do not provide those benefits would no longer be able to artificially manufacture labor-cost advantages by simply denying basic rights to workers. That could be a huge net win for Facebook.

So then why hasn’t Sandberg matched her words with more forceful action in the legislative advocacy arena? Most likely, two reasons.

First and foremost, there appears to be a flawed theory of change at play.

As the Guardian’s Jill Filipovic put it, Sandberg seems to believe that that simply having “more women at the tippy-top of our institutions of power and influence” will mean more family-friendly policies because, the theory goes, women better appreciate the need for such polices. In this view, getting more women into executive positions is a private-sector method of solving the Terrible Trifecta™, because female managers will supposedly be more willing to initiate those family-planning meetings with employees and will be more willing to create family-friendly policies in the office.

Filipovic is absolutely right that there are plenty of reasons to want more women in positions of power -- particularly in places like Silicon Valley where they are seriously underrepresented in leadership roles. And (ignoring Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s family-unfriendly policies) there’s a strong case to be made that by virtue of their experiences in a chauvinist economy, women in positions of power will better understand the need for family-friendly policies in the workplace. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the gender of senior executives can be the primary factor in reforming family workplace policies throughout the whole economy.

Far more often, factors like shareholder demands, consumer pressure, industry-wide standards, employee bargaining power, labor market competition and - most importantly - concrete statutes determine overall worker benefits. Indeed, as the history of the minimum wage, the 40 hour work week and safety standards (to name a few) prove that workplace/benefit improvements tend not to be the product of an individual executive’s altruism, benevolence, enlightenment or personal perspective. They tend instead to be the product of systemic forces -- the most significant of which is the law of the land. This is especially the case for workers further down the socioeconomic ladder who can be more easily replaced and who therefore have less economic leverage against their employer. As Forbes' Bryce Covert notes:

Sandberg defends her strategy of focusing on changing things at the top because she believes that change will reach down to the bottom...(but) it’s hard to see how any of this helps the huge numbers of women working low-paid jobs. They’re the majority of workers in service sector jobs like retail and food service that offer paltry wages and few, if any, benefits like paid time off or even stable schedules to help arrange childcare. They dominate growing jobs like home health aides and domestic workers who don’t even enjoy all the labor protections afforded other workers and are often subject to abuse. These problems will likely remain untouched even if women like Sandberg and Mayer transform Google and Yahoo!.
In sum, to achieve what Sandberg says she supports, America needs to have a discussion about national legislation. But that raises the second factor that might discourage a tech executive like Sandberg from taking more forceful political action and doing something more than rhetorically claiming she supports family-friendly public policies. That factor is simple: general suspicion of -- and reflexive hostility toward -- full-scale government mandates.

Despite the tech industry’s infamous collusion with the National Security Agency, and despite much of its founding being rooted in government subsidies, much of Silicon Valley still sees itself as Libertarian in spirit (if not in practice). That self-image may not preclude the average tech company from inking a lucrative government contract, but it can lead tech firms to oppose -- and back groups opposing -- the whole notion of government regulation. In this Libertarian view, regulations are inherently bad for the economy because they harm the allegedly “free” market. Additionally, even if a company happens to like a specific mandate, pervasive domino-theory fears often lead them to oppose it on the grounds that it represents a slippery slope to a slew of regulations the company will hate.

No doubt, paid sick, vacation, and maternity leave mandates are among the purest forms of government regulation in that they explicitly force companies to do things. But here's the thing that many Libertarians either don't know or don't want to acknowledge: There’s plenty of evidence that these specific regulations are good both for workers and for the larger economy.

For example, various studies suggest that paid sick days and paid vacation days limit workforce turnover, lower health care costs, and reduce the billions in lost productivity from employees coming to work while ill. Likewise, a 2012 Rutgers University study found that “women who take paid leave after a child’s birth report stronger labor force attachment and positive changes in wages” than those who do not. Meanwhile, the analysis found that “both women and men report lower levels of public assistance receipt in the year following a child’s birth, when compared to those who do not take any leave.”

The corporate class in the advanced industrialized countries that maintain paid sick, maternity and vacation mandates seem to understand these realities. Their mandates remain in their laws as much for the regulations’ basic decency as for their macroeconomic upsides. Clearly, these upsides are understood by the (relatively few) US corporate leaders like Sandberg who provide family-friendly benefits to their workers. After all, those corporate leaders are providing such benefits to their own US workforces not only out of a sense of altruism, but also because they aim to generate the same positive productivity results that are seen in countries with family friendly policies.

Those results don't have to be exclusive to Facebook or the tech industry, nor do they only have to exist in only a few US states and cities. They can be the standard throughout the entire American economy -- and in rising-tide-lifts-all-boats fashion, that can boost every US industry. Making that a reality, though, requires prominent leaders like Sandberg to not just make speeches or lead by example at their own firms -- it requires them to also back up their rhetoric with national political initiatives that truly lean in.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Facebook is listed as a supporter of the multi-issue Center for American Progress, which has written favorably about paid maternity leave.

Illustration by Gant Powell