Jan 26, 2017 ยท 13 minutes

I first moved to Silicon Valley in 1999. I have seen no female business leader have as much impact on gender in all that time as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.

When I moved here, female leaders didn’t want to look female, be called female, or even be congratulated for climbing the corporate ranks while female. The mantra was that it was somehow sexist to talk about them as women, rather than people who had achieved. They had helmet-y hair, and boxy suits, and they never talked openly about children or work life balance. Many, like Oracle’s Safra Catz, wanted absolutely no press at all.

Then Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz stood out as the exception to this rule, but she was running a wonky CAD software company.

Marissa Mayer had a big impact on the image of femininity in Silicon Valley, with her looks, her glamour and her willingness to do media. But Mayer, still, didn’t hitch her wagon to women’s issues even once saying this about feminism:

"I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that, I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions. But I don’t, I think, have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there’s more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy." 

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. There was no pressure or precedent for female tech leaders to identify so heavily with women’s issues. And that’s why she struck such a chord with so many women. Finally a woman in power was saying all the things we all felt. It was particularly meaningful to me that she openly talked about motherhood-- the joys, the challenges, and the strength of it.

This matters because 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.

Is that brand, that admiration solely because she is the COO of the only major super unicorn of the social networking era, and one of a few companies bucking to be the first $1 trillion market cap super duper unicorn? Maybe. But my hunch is her positioning as the flawed and vulnerable and yet commanding and respected woman a top that company, a woman who helps lift up other women, has played a massive role in people’s esteem for her.  

So having voluntarily taken on this cause-- and let’s face it, benefitted from that it in many ways-- Sandberg must be well positioned to be a leader in this precise moment of feminist consciousness, right?

Uh, wrong.

Since November, I’ve heard one phrase uttered over and over by senior women in the Valley: “Why isn’t Sheryl saying anything about this?” To be specific, it started right around November 9, when Hillary Clinton conceded the Presidency to Donald Trump.

She defended Peter Thiel staying on Facebook’s board. She defended her boss’s dismissal of the idea that fake news impacted the election. She-- not Zuckerberg-- went to that meeting and sat behind the Trump water. And most surprising of all: Sheryl Sandberg had absolutely nothing public to say about last weekend’s women’s march, the largest feminist event in our lifetimes. The largest American protest. The time we actually saw footage on every major network and newspaper of what she has been saying for years women need to do: Linking arms and standing together.

Sandberg was not exactly a-political up until this point. Her mentor was Larry Summers of the Clinton Whitehouse, and she was-- according to public records at least -- the only tech CEO to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the Obama years. She endorsed Clinton during the campaign, and there was even speculation that she might leave Facebook for a cabinet position in a Clinton Whitehouse.

And Sandberg has hardly backed away from women’s issues generally. Last week, at Davos she railed against gender stereotypes in advertising and how damaging they could be to women. You know what else is damaging to women? A man who routinely rates women on a scale of one to ten, jokes about dating pre-teens in a few years, brags about sexual assault and then denies allegations of it by saying women aren’t hot enough for him to assault them. That guy being in the White House arguably sends a worse message of a woman’s worth to a young girl than a thin, photoshopped model. Fortune got the headline exactly right on her talk when it said “At Davos, Sheryl Sandberg Narrows Her Fight for Gender Equality to a Single Foe.” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, a single foe that doesn’t pose a threat to Facebook. That isn’t leadership.

It is impossible to imagine that Sandberg has absolutely nothing to say about the women’s march, that she simply didn’t notice it happened. It strains credulity almost as much as the idea that Facebook’s trending news algorithm didn’t notice it. It’s particularly remarkable given how much of the march was organized on Facebook.

Sandberg can not or will not even acknowledge the most feminist thing that’s happened, which was largely organized on her company’s site and aligns with her stated personal political views. I’m not sure we could have clearer evidence at this point that Facebook is bending over backwards to embrace a Donald Trump world.

It’s almost like she’s a woman so penned in by a patriarchy that she’s afraid to speak out and make her voice heard. So let’s turn to an expert on this kind of thing, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg:

From a piece on “Speaking while female”:

Suspecting that powerful women stayed quiet because they feared a backlash, Professor Brescoll looked deeper. She asked professional men and women to evaluate the competence of chief executives who voiced their opinions more or less frequently. Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.

Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness.

...leaders must also take steps to encourage women to speak and be heard. 

From a piece on how merely “raising awareness” that bias exists can normalize and increase bias:

If awareness makes it worse, how do we make it better? The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable…

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

To motivate women at work, we need to be explicit about our disapproval of the leadership imbalance as well as our support for female leaders.

To break down the barriers that hold women back, it’s not enough to spread awareness. If we don’t reinforce that people need — and want — to overcome their biases, we end up silently condoning the status quo.

From a piece on the myth of “Queen Bees”:

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...

...In the past, structural disadvantages forced women to protect their fragile turf. Some of those disadvantages persist. Research shows that in male-dominated settings, token women are more likely to worry about their standing, so they’re reluctant to advocate for other women....

...It’s time to stop punishing women and minorities for promoting diversity...When a woman helps another woman, they both benefit. And when women celebrate one another’s accomplishments, we’re all lifted up.

From the homepage of Sandberg’s nonprofit, LeanIn.Org:

Women accomplish amazing things when we support each other.

When a woman helps another woman, they both benefit. And when women celebrate one another’s accomplishments, we’re all lifted up. Together women can do more, go further, and change the world. Let’s #LeanInTogether.


Together we can raise a generation of female leaders. Whether you’re a mother, older sister, or mentor, model leadership and teach girls to speak up and step outside their comfort zone.

There’s an article on the site about “What women can do to bust the myth that we don’t support each other.” I can think of a few things...

And in case you’ve forgotten, this is the stated goal of LeanIn.org:

The book Lean In is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do. LeanIn.Org is the next chapter.

We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.

Speak out. Link arms. Role-model stepping outside of a woman’s comfort zone. Don’t normalize bias by staying silent and protecting your own interests. Organize. This is the advice of a woman who didn’t acknowledge that all of that just happened on a global scale last Saturday.

Now is about the time when some people reading this are screaming what’s become the two cop out words in a Trump America: Fiduciary duty!

Look, I’m far more sympathetic to the idea that CEOs and COOs have a fiduciary duty to give President Donald Trump a chance than a lot of folks. I didn’t begrudge Sandberg for being in Trump’s big tech meeting. She had an appropriate sulky expression that telegraphed “I have no choice but to be here.” I didn’t begrudge her for defending Peter Thiel’s continued existence on the Facebook board.

But here is where my defenses end. She didn’t have to become a feminist champion, she chose to. She convinced women she was linking arms with them. And-- I’m not saying this was her cynical intention-- but she has profited from that decision. Women like Sandberg abandoning the movement now speaks to the anxiety I saw in women of color in the-- ahem-- Facebook group Pantsuit Nation just after the election: That white women who have a place in a Trump world would abandon the greater cause. That the “sisterhood” against Trump would abruptly turn into every white woman for herself, and a bunch of women of color being shit out of luck.

Sandberg has sadly modeled the worst fears women of color have in being part of the broader feminist movement. And in doing so, she’s given credence to a lot of unfair criticism she got after LeanIn was published: That she was arguing feminism from a position of luxury and privilege.

I understand that Sandberg is in a brutal position, but that is the thing about standing up for what’s right. It only means anything when it’s inconvenient. I am not writing this piece about Safra Catz. I am not writing this piece about Marissa Mayer. I am not arguing that every woman in tech has a gender-born responsibility to reject a man who boasts about sexual assault and has threatened to set women’s reproductive rights back decades. But if you’ve built your brand, net worth, and reputation on those very issues, standing silent now is cowardly, heartbreaking, and a betrayal of the women you claimed you were “with”.

And for what it’s worth, other Facebook senior managers did post things about the march this past weekend. From head of Facebook Messenger David Marcus’ on January 21, for instance:

Sandberg didn’t have to be that full-throated. She could have celebrated that women were finding their voice, regardless of political views. She could have even celebrated the role that Facebook has played in galvanizing support on both sides of the political spectrum. She could have said “while I don’t agree with all the views…” or some other mealy-mouth disclaimer. She -- unlike the trending news algorithm-- could have acknowledged that it happened.

But Facebook is well aware of how retaliatory Donald Trump is. Facebook is well aware that Twitter didn’t get to come to Trump Tower, because it refused to do an anti-Hillary emoji. Facebook is well aware that a lot of conservatives believe it helped put Trump in The White House, even if Facebook itself denies that. And as Facebook and Google control some 80% of the digital advertising budgets, their board member Peter Thiel is now in charge of picking the Trump administration’s antitrust team. Now is not the time they wanna rock the Trump boat. I get it.  

But the thing is, I have re-read Lean In, Leanin.org’s mission statement, and Sandberg’s past New York Times series, and I can’t find any clause about “fiduciary duty.”

Sandberg has a choice. She can prioritize what she’s told the world she believes in or she can prioritize her fiduciary duty. Unfortunately, she finds herself -- and the world finds itself-- in a position where those two things are in conflict. If Sandberg meant any of it, she needs to link arms. If she doesn’t, she forfeits future rights to lecture women about their duty to stand together.


Update: Sheryl Sandberg says she "regrets" not posting about the Women's March, and has reportedly  donated $1m to Planned Parenthood.