Having a high profile woman at the top (or almost at the top) of one of the biggest tech companies in the world doesn’t make it ‘diverse’. Nor does it make it anything close to perfect, or even necessarily good.
Indeed, even when she is one of the world’s best known advocates for encouraging women to ‘lean in’ to promotions, pay rises and other career-related opportunities.
That’s certainly the case with Sheryl Sandberg, who is up against significant backlash as the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook which has been facing a series of crises that have been sickening to witness, including an inability to foresee, deal with and appropriately respond to some of the negatives of its social platforms.
Her ‘saint’ image is coming undone, as plenty of news outlets have been quick to point out.
There have been privacy breaches at Facebook including Cambridge Analytica, a major role in distributing fake news and misinformation, the distribution of racist ads, viral propaganda and hate speech, and Russian influence in the 2016 US presidential campaign. And if you want a disturbing account of the role Facebook had in Myanmar, read this explainer — and then take a look at journalist Maria Ressa’s take on how Facebook “moved fast” and then ‘broke a country’: the Phillipines. You may have noticed personally that some of your friends and family members are either fleeing the platform or making significantly less posts and appearances. Facebook’s share price has fallen significantly this year. Some of its best known employees have quit, including the founders of Instagram.
While much of the blame has been centred on founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, an extensive New York Times investigation claims that Sandberg too played a significant role in the platform’s woes. It details how Facebook long ignored how its platform was being used by ring-wing extremists and Russian trolls, as well as how it moved to hire a research firm to target its critics.
“The pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view,” the NYT wrote on Zuckerberg and Sandberg, quoting numerous former and current executives as sources. “At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates.” It described Zuckerberg as undertaking a public apology tour, while Sandberg moved to pursue a lobbying campaign to combat Facebook critics and deflect criticism towards rival companies, including by employing a Republican opposition-research firm to help discredit activist protesters.
Meanwhile, diversity continues to be a problem at Facebook — one that given the huge user base, it’s motto to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” and its disturbing amount of global influence — is particularly problematic and concerning.
A former Facebook employee has accused the tech giant of having a ‘a black people problem’, saying that its number of black employees don’t represent its user base and that “in some buildings, there are more ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters than there are actually black people. Facebook can’t claim that it is connecting communities if those communities aren’t represented proportionately in its staffing.” Black employees account for just 4% of Facebook’s employee base.
Thirty six per cent of Facebook’s global workforce is female, including in 30% of senior leadership positions. There are still only two women on its nine person board.
Sandberg left Google for Facebook in 2008, and went on to write her best-selling and much discussed book (including on this platform) Lean In in 2013. She appeared on the cover of TIME magazine that same year with the curious headline, “Don’t hate her because she’s successful”.
That cover was always going to suggest Sandberg would face some serious scrutiny — some of it because she’s female in a male-dominated world, but also because she’s put so much into her personal brand and push to get more women into leadership. There was also the issue that Zuckerberg started Facebook so young and is often still considered a ‘boy’ (he is now 34), leading to the idea that Sandberg is the ‘grown up’ in the room (she is now 49).
The headlines from the past week or so say a lot about how perceptions on Sandberg are shifting. News.com.au suggested her “saintly image in Silicon Valley is unravelling.’ A Vanity Fair headline reads that “Many have long known Sheryl Sandberg isn’t a saint’, and goes on to describe her as “brilliant” but “ruthless executive and indefatigable political animal”. It also describes her excellent ability to manage the press and to “negotiate details down to the decimal point”.
The women’s section of Forbes wrote: “True equality means leaning in to power—and bearing the full weight of the repercussions for using it unwisely.”
Jezebel wrote that: “Maybe somebody should lean out”.
Sandberg isn’t solely responsible for Facebook’s problems, but as the second in charge and given her role leading legal and policy, she can’t be separated from what’s going on. But there are also other senior executives at Facebook.
And after all those many, many sorrys, Zuckerberg is still the CEO and chair of Facebook.