the tech industry's biggest Initial Public Offering of stock ever. What do practitioners of feminism, a philosophy centered in the experiences of women, have to say about the political economy of the world's biggest social technology company? They've raised a number of interesting questions so far.Facebook has announced what will likely be
It seems that everyone has an opinion about Facebook's stated goal of being a force for good in the world. Feminists online have also raised questions about the company's unusually exclusive all-male Board of Directors and about mega-powerful COO Sheryl Sandberg's public calls for women to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. As a cultural phenomenon of historic proportion, what does the Facebook IPO mean with regard to gender?
The seven-member Board of Directors is made up entirely of men, something Bloomberg points out is true of only 11% of the Fortune 500 overall. Angie Chang, Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Women 2.0, an online community dedicated to women founding companies, writes:
The all-male board of Facebook makes you wonder why a company serving a user base of at least 50% half women has no female representation on the board. We told ourselves that women board directors can build value and bring win-win strategies to the table - let's #changetheratio here.
Bloomberg's Carol Hymowitz contrasts the all male membership of the board with Facebook's avowed social mission to empower the world and to Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's powerful advocacy for women.
Facebook generally declines to comment on issues like this. It's typical of Silicon Valley's libertarian-leaning culture to believe that the best way to overcome injustices connected to gender, race, class and sexual orientation, are to ignore the existence of gender, race, class and sexual orientation. That approach may leave unresolved long-standing institutional, economic and cultural factors that stand in the way of equal opportunity and which cannot be overcome by society as a whole through the self interest and sheer force of will of people on the margins of power.
Sheryl Sandberg is the second most visible person at Facebook and will likely become a billionaire in the IPO. She's often said to be a prominent advocate of women in the workplace.
Jezebel, though, that Sandberg's position is a very particular one: that women are fundamentally responsible for their own career development in corporate America and need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.Doug Barry points out on
Sandberg is well known for her 2010 TED talk Why we have too few women leaders, which has been viewed more than 1 million times.
Sandberg's message is directed at the elite crowd gathered at TED and adresses women who are not gaining top power positions in the organizations they work at. She offers three primary pieces of advice. "One, sit at the table," by which she means give yourself the credit you deserve and aim high. "Two, make your partner a real partner," or make sure that heterosexual married couples contain parents with equal earning power and responsibility and that men are encouraged to take responsibility around the house. "And three, don't leave before you leave," in other words keep seizing new opportunities despite the possibility you might take time off to have a child.
Those are relatively conservative political admonitions that speak primarily to the problems experienced by the women in society who are already closest to power.
Barry writes on Jezebel:
Not only is Sandberg exceptionally smart, but, after graduating from Harvard Business School, she landed a job at the World Bank as the chief of staff first for Larry H. Summers then the Treasury Secretary. A job at Google followed before she joined Facebook in 2008, an opportunity that Sandberg was prescient enough to take full advantage of. If success really is preparation meeting opportunity, Sandberg was more than prepared for her chance at professional success, but some women believe that when she insists on aiming high, she's discounting the fact that her meteoric rise owes itself, at least in part, to some very favorable circumstances (including the fact that her husband, Daniel Goldberg, is a successful entrepreneur in his own right and the couple doesn't have to worry about finding child care for their two sons).
Barry quotes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation and director for the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University:
I'm a huge fan of her accomplishments and think she's a huge role model in some ways, but I think she's overly critical of women because she's almost implying that they don't have the juice, the chutzpah, to go for it...I think she's had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition. Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they're actually derailed by other things, like they don't have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.
That paragraph had a soft ending; there are far more unpleasant ways that many women are derailed than by a lack of a sponsor at work.
Courteney Martin, on one of the web's most respected feminist blogs, Feministing, says that while Sandberg's message to individual women is valuable, it is just one story.
In essence, her message is tantamount to The American Dream for the 21st century woman: the problem is not sexism or racism or classism, the problem is not pathetic work-family policy at the federal level, the problem is not collective. The problem is you. In the Gospel of Sandberg, individual women must find partners who will share the load and negotiate fiercely, overcome their own guilt about not being able to be fully present parents, and "lean in" to their careers despite the lack of structural or systemic supports that might make that feel even slightly safe or rewarding.
Reading this profile of Sandberg, I was reminded of Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, incredible TED Talk, in which she talks about "the danger of the single story." She explains, "The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."
I actually think that Sandberg is smart and has great intentions with her message that women need to dig deep and stick to their own dreams. I agree with her in many ways... This is part of the story. But it's not the whole story.
The rest of the story is better told by women who didn't grow up with lots of familial and social support, women who didn't go to Harvard, women who weren't mentored by Larry Summers, women with different definitions of success and leadership.
To look at the bright side, perhaps Facebook's social technology will itself help other women tell their stories and hear the stories of women other than the most privileged elite.
The world's largest communication network between people is taking a big financial step, it's infamously opportunistic with changing ideas of privacy and it's lead by an all-male board and a woman whose perspective on gender is likely applauded by conservatives around the world. That all seems important to discuss.