Pando

Is it "invalid" to ask whether sites women are on are also hurting women?

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 22, 2016

From The Pandoland 2016 Desk

At Pandoland, we had two intense conversations we had about the responsibility of social media companies on the world, and the two speakers couldn’t have more divergent views on the subject.

Nancy Jo Sales, author of “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” spoke first. I loved Sales book but found a lot of inherent tensions in it, and I tried to ask her about these.

One of the most interesting parts of the book to me was the myth around “mean girls” which she explodes in her book. That said, I brought up the challenges in saying it’s a total myth. She also has examples of girls being mean to other girls throughout the book, and many women I know feel like they had a “mean girl” in their high school. I certainly did.

I agree 100% with Sales that the universality of “mean girls” has been a media construct and a devious way to dismiss bullying. But that doesn’t mean no one has had the experience.

I had a similar experience reading Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s recent piece about the  adult version of this story: About the myth of the “catty woman.”

From her piece:

The biggest enemy of women, we’re warned, is a powerful woman. Queen bees refuse to help other women. If you approach one for advice, instead of opening a door, she’ll shut the door before you can even get your foot in. We’ve often heard women lower their voices and confess, “It hurts me to say this, but the worst boss I ever had was a woman.”

But statistically that isn’t true.

According to the queen bee theory, a female senior manager should have a more negative impact on the other women trying to climb into professional ranks. When strategy professors studied the top management of the Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years, they found something that seemed to support the notion. In their study, when one woman reached senior management, it was 51 percent less likely that a second woman would make it.

But the person blocking the second woman’s path wasn’t usually a queen bee; it was a male chief executive. 

Sandberg’s argument lines up with the stats that show venture firms with even a single female partner are twice as likely to invest in management teams that include women.

I have never felt particularly “held down” by women in my career, but I have had many conversations with women who deeply believe they have. Both Sales and Sandberg acknowledge a societal “zero sum” game that can lead to both teenaged girls being mean and professional women holding other women back.

In her book, Sales reports on girls who say having a boyfriend is the most important thing in their world, and that can lead to competitive pressures between these girls. Similarly, Sandberg says “Queen bees aren’t a reason for inequality but rather a result of inequality. In the past, structural disadvantages forced women to protect their fragile turf.”

As important as it is to explode these myths and the bias they are used to cover up, it’s not quite as easy as saying it’s all made up.

At the end of the day, it’s not that women who say they’ve had either experience are “wrong,” it’s that there’s no evidence that girls and women are any meaner or more sabotaging than men. (Indeed, there’s a lot of reports to the contrary.) And that women should beware of anyone trumpeting either of those talking points, as it’s usually used as a way to dismiss the seriousness of bullying or discrimination in our society.

Here’s the video:

Sales-- as you may recall-- was also the Vanity Fair reporter who tangled with Tinder, and also in her book expresses deep concerns about how the product can affect girls. We’ve all seen sites listing horrific messages women get via the app.

One of our final speakers was the former CEO of Match Group, Sam Yagan, who was in charge of Tinder during the time of Sales reporting. Yagan had just gotten done describing all the many dating sites under the Match umbrella as something akin to bars. They may all ultimately be selling you the same product, drinks, but they each have a different vibe and atmosphere, and different people prefer different ones.

Some might argue, Tinder, for instance, would be something like the bar out of the movie “Coyote Ugly.” A place not all women would be comfortable in. I tried to ask Yagan about the concerns of people like Sales, and the conversation got... strange. Yagan said the question was “invalid,” because there are women on Tinder.  

I have to say, I was caught off guard by his reaction, and it’s typically hard to catch me off guard in an interview. I figured this was something he was asked about quite a bit; the same way I had asked Dick Costolo earlier that morning about one of his failings as Twitter’s CEO, a failure to clamp down on bullying. Costolo didn’t say it was an invalid question, he answered it.

When I’ve asked Mark Zuckerberg in the past about privacy concerns at Facebook, he may disagree with user concerns, but he argues what they are missing. I haven’t heard him pretend the issue isn’t there. Ditto, early on, when I asked Evan Spiegel about the idea that Snapchat is for sexting, he rebutted that view with data from the company, but he didn’t say it was an “invalid question” he refused to answer. Typically executives are coached to say something like “we need to do a better job on this.”

If I were in charge of Tinder, I would have expected that question. I likely would have been asked it a lot and already come up with my pat answer. I still don’t quite get it.

But here’s that video:

Both interviews got a lot of attention on the ground, but neither interview was ultimately satisfying, in my view. While I may see more good in social media than Sales does, you cannot ignore the reporting she has done that shows the impact it is having on girls culturally. She asked: If teenaged girls are the biggest consumers of these technologies, don’t the companies have some responsibility to make sure they aren’t being damaged by them?

Yes, these companies should have some responsibility to their consumers. But what is it exactly? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s an important one for the Valley to consider. As important as the question of what the sharing economy is doing to the work force of this country-- a battle that’s being fought in courts right now.

But Yagan’s view appeared to be, as long as girls are on them, it’s an “invalid” question.