Sheryl Sandberg is practicing what she preached
I keep getting asked why I haven’t written anything about the recent Facebook scandals, especially as it relates to tech’s most influential and until-recently admired female leader, Sheryl Sandberg.
Well, one reason is the rest of the world is busy with their own hot take and I’m not sure we need one more. Another reason is that, frankly, Pando wrote about a lot of these issues years ago. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the growing concern among women in Silicon Valley that she had abandoned her “let’s link arms!” feminist rallying cry in the wake of the Trump win.
A piece that Facebook made pains to say most definitely didn’t prompt Sandberg to criticize Trump’s policies towards women later that day after months of total silence, make an immediate donation to Planned Parenthood and organize a friendly sit down with Kara Swisher to emphasize how much she definitely still was a feminist. We also wrote about how Facebook had restaffed many of its government and policy related teams with right-wingers after the win. Paul even wrote about Alex Stamos as the canary in the Facebook coal mine, nearly two years ago, under the headline, “Worried about Facebook’s coziness with Trump? What what Alex Stamos does next.”
We also wrote months ago about the bizarre infantilization of male tech execs when things go wrong:
“The infantilization of male tech founders is as bizarre as the idea that accomplished female executives should act as their nannies. [Travis] Kalanick was in his 40s and had grey hair when the argument was circulating the Valley and the tech press that the poor little baby just didn’t know not to steal billions of dollars in trade secrets, smear rape victims, and treat women at his company horribly…
[Mark] Zuckerberg has lead this company for 14 years. He has grown it to a half a trillion dollars in market cap, with a far stronger stranglehold on control than most tech founders. He has been called more powerful than any world leader, which by the way, he knows pretty much all of them. He is also a father of two. He answers to Wall Street every quarter.
How has he stayed stuck in your mind as a 19-year-old wearing a hoodie is some kind of gender Rorschach test, for sure.”
Beyond that, the idea that recent stories about Sandberg have somehow betrayed her “nice” feminist icon status in the Valley is a strawman argument. Everyone who has ever been in Sandberg’s orbit knows how efficient, direct, and execution-oriented she is. She is charming but she is not warm and fuzzy. You never quite know where you stand with her. You are never quite comfortable with her. (She has always slightly terrified me.)
And even Sandberg said upon the release of “Lean In” that she was more of a pragmatist than a revolutionary. She made a data based argument, not a human rights argument for inclusion. It was feminism for a GenX audience of white women who had mostly achieved success by hacking a patriarchal system and cool girling their way through it, not overthrowing it. It was practical feminism for those with privilege in an Obama world where those women could assume things would keep getting a little better without them having to do much about it.
If you ever really understood what Sandberg stood for you, you know she hasn’t betrayed anything post-Trump. She has stuck to her own advice of looking out for yourself and your career first.
That doesn’t mean the critiques of Sandberg aren’t gendered. Of course they are. Of course it’s absurd that people continue to infantilize male tech executives in their 30s and 40s who are parents and have built multi-billion dollar companies. But she can’t be surprised by the critique: Sandberg herself embraced the image of being “the grown up” at Facebook when the company was riding high, just as she made a fortune and a dominant personal brand with “Lean In.”
Sandberg is easily the most senior woman in tech, and the most respected despite not being a founder or a CEO. According to First Round’s 2016 State of Startups, Sandberg was the most cited female answer to what tech leader people admire most. She got 1% of overall responses, compared to 6% for Mark Zuckerberg and 5% for Steve Jobs. She got 5% of the write-ins from female respondents. No other female leader came close.
How many other COOs in tech can you name? How many COOs of any major company can you name-- male or female? When you purposely craft that powerful of a brand known as (a) the pragmatic adult in the room turning wunderkind genius into billions and (b) a woman who has reached the top and now wants to help other women get there, you can’t suddenly cry foul when the world and the press wants to hold you to that standard.
As I wrote nearly two years ago:
“It was Sandberg who made her story intertwined with feminism, built her brand on lifting up women, and loudly and unapologetically taking on feminist issues and pro-mother issues. She didn’t just write LeanIn, she didn’t just appear on every TV show and the speaking circuit arguing for women’s rights, she didn’t just launch a foundation to continue to push for women’s rights, she didn’t just pen a series of articles with Adam Grant for the New York Times to further the conversation, she frequently took to her own Facebook page to congratulate other women and to point out gender injustice when she saw it.
The press didn’t make Sandberg into a feminist tech hero, she did.”
I have created a (far smaller brand) around calling out bro behavior. If I suddenly added Travis Kalanick to the board of Chairman Mom and was found to be oppo researching critics, should I be ripped apart for it? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter that I’d get critiqued more as a woman than, say, Paul Carr would. That doesn’t make it a less valid critique of hypocrisy. I’d even light your torches for you.
The problem isn’t that Sandberg is getting called out for betraying what she told us she stood for. The problem is that male CEOs and COOs in tech don’t get called out for it.
As I argued earlier this year, it’s similar to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Should she absolutely be criticized for defrauding investors and trashing the press who were trying to hold her accountable? Absolutely. Is it gendered that people then say this is why women shouldn’t get unicorn valuations? Absolutely. It’s depressing that she was briefly an icon for what ambitious female founders could achieve. But that doesn’t make the fraud any less of a fact, and it certainly doesn’t mean men and women shouldn’t hold her accountable for it.
More important to me than the New York Times reports that she yelled at Alex Stamos in a conference room was this memo by former Facebook executive Mark Luckie arguing “Facebook has a black people problem.” Sandberg is the one who said again and again when she was promoting “Lean In” that the data on diversity speaks for itself. That companies shouldn’t be more diverse because they are nice, they should do it because they are self-interested. (Again, the pragmatist at work.) Facebook’s own leaders have said repeatedly that the future of their company is doing better on diversity. And yet, black employees make up only 4% of the company’s workforce, according to the company’s own numbers.
The salacious reports on Oppo Research aren’t evidence that Sandberg doesn’t practice what she’s preached. The company’s own diversity stats are.