XX in Tech

Sheryl Sandberg Doesn’t Have to Occupy Menlo Park to be Radical

A high-tech Hillary makes the case for changing the ratio, armed with more statistics than a year's worth of pitch decks.
sheryl sandberg Sheryl Sandberg Doesnt Have to Occupy Menlo Park to be Radical

Ms. Sandberg.

Over the last week or so, there’s been much debate over whether Facebook’s resident adult in the room is actually a rebel. The fury was kicked off with New York Times piece previewing Sheryl Sandberg’s upcoming book Lean In. Right on cue, a thousand outraged responses bloomed.

Critics suggested she was out of touch and questioned whether a Davos-attending power player with five dollars more than God could really understand the struggles of working women. Then there was the common contention that Ms. Sandberg was putting all the onus onto women: Stop opting out and start leaning in, external forces be damned.

Unfortunately, much of the response was based on Ms. Sandberg’s previous speeches, an out-of-context quote from that dubious Times piece, and the book’s jacket copy. Upon cracking open Lean In, you’ll actually find a clear-eyed, forcefully argued treatise lamenting the lack of women in power, exploring what holds the back and recommending strategies for change.

All that, and without a single mention of Girls. Oh my stars and garters!

Ms. Sandberg isn’t trying to swoop in and solve all the problems of feminism all at once. (The Feminine Mystique didn’t fix everything, either.) Nor is this a labor argument. She has a very specific goal: Help women who want to get to the top. And she’s the first to acknowledge this isn’t the alpha and omega of the movement, admitting early on that this isn’t the primary focus for many women. “My intention is not to exclude them or ignore their valid concerns,” she writes.

It’s when you consider Ms. Sandberg in the context of Silicon Valley that her campaign to get more women in the boardroom looks radical. Here, watch her slaughter the most sacred of tech-world cows: “One stumbling block is that many people believe that the workplace is largely a meritocracy, which means we look at individuals, not groups, and determine that differences must be based on merit, not gender.”

Men don’t see the benefits they’re enjoying by being men; women don’t question whether being a dude might’ve somehow given their boss a leg up. “As a result, everyone becomes complicit in perpetuating an unjust system,” she concludes.

Good luck getting anyone else in Silicon Valley to say anything even remotely like that. (Eric Schmidt, for example, is busy trying to get North Koreans on the Internet.) No, you won’t catch the COO of Facebook throwing a trashcan through the plate-glass window of a Starbucks during a WTO protest. But in an environment where everyone is remarkably satisfied with how progressive they are, uttering the words “unjust system” actually isn’t that far from torching your bra in a bonfire outside the Miss America pageant.

It’s easy to miss this simple fact, probably because the polished Ms. Sandberg doesn’t code as an activist. Nor is this the lazy “revolutionary” “world-changing” “disruption” people are always yammering about in the tech world. She isn’t a riot grrl or a techie wunderkind; she’s a Hillary, clad in appropriate workwear and armed with more statistics than a year’s worth of pitch decks. It’s hard to shake the sense that this is a woman who figured out very young she’d need to be twice as good at her job to get half as far.

You can look at her argument as accommodationist: “Boys will be boys, so we have to do what we can.” Or you can look at Lean In and the accompanying campaign as a strategy for running a blockade. If you come off as too passive or too aggressive, it might trip up your chances of getting that raise. But that’s not something she wants to be the case; that’s just the facts.

Some of the objections outlined by the New York Times article are fair. Whether or not that “social movement” line was taken out of context, real change rarely starts from the top. For another thing, you’ve got to wonder about a social movement with corporations like Johnson & Johnson as launch partners. Even if Ms. Sandberg isn’t actually just telling women to work harder, it’s easy to see how HR could find saying “advocate for yourself” an easy replacement for, you know, actually cultivating their promising female employees. And a little skepticism is certainly called for whenever Mark Zuckerberg thinks something is“radically realistic.”

The reported emphasis on positive stories also seems awfully Mary Sue Sunshine, and it a real oversight not to recognize the value of sitting with a group of women you respect and trust and hearing over and over again stories that make you say “fuck this noise.” (They used to call that “the Click.”)

There’s value in pushing back against Ms. Sandberg’s arguments, in using this as an opening to call for mandatory sick days or expanded paternity leave. Movements are never wholly unified things.

More women roaming the halls of Fortune 500 companies won’t magick away all our problems, of course. The jury’s still out on whether Marissa Mayer’s made Yahoo any more female friendly, and to borrow an example from the political sphere, it’s not like electing Sarah Palin would’ve protected abortion rights.

But do you really think it doesn’t help to have a Sheryl Sandberg in the position to tell Sergey and Larry that it’s time to reserve some parking spaces for pregnant women? Do you really think it didn’t make a difference when she showed up at Facebook? She says she’s willing to take the bet that flooding the zone with women will make it easier to be heard, to speak up and to get ahead.

At least it would give Silicon Valley some new patterns to match.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com
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