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. And we already wrote about the bizarre infantilization of male tech execs when things go wrong.
Beyond that, the idea that Sandberg has somehow betrayed her “nice” feminist icon status in the Valley is a straw man 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 Gen X 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 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.
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.
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.
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.