Monday, March 25, 2013

Facebook feminism

Last week, Time Magazine had another provocative cover. It pictured Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO and author of a new book advising women to Lean In and seek positions of power in the corporate world. The photo had this admonition plastered across:



My first thought was: why hate Ms. Sandberg for that, when there may be some much, much better reasons?

But first, let’s take a look at the positive personality traits she has revealed. The Time profile emphasizes most her unique combination of high IQ and EQ. The evidence they present? A Machiavellian moment Dale Carnegie himself would have been proud of: “In a meeting to discuss the purchase of a Web-design company  Sandberg reminds her team that the firm’s founder is about to have a birthday and wants to get the deal done before the big day.” But wait, there must be some other evidence for Ms. Sandberg’s stratospheric EQ. Let me think:

1. The emotionally evocative language she employs in her book. Here is a representative sample: “The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our performance would improve.

2. She has a real insight into the female soul. Her main argument is that women don’t climb the corporate ladder like men because they have some strong internal inhibitions (as they have internalized silly stereotypes).

3. She has a good working relationship with Mark Zuckerberg.

4. She has deep sympathy for the many millions of female underdogs who will be left behind even if corporate offices and boardrooms do become stuffed with 50 per cent women. She even has some doubts as to whether the 90 million dollars she has made cashing in most of her Facebook stock options may be a somewhat disproportionate reward for her hard work and organizational skills – particularly when compared to the salaries meted out for traditional female occupations.

OK, I made that last point up – and this is what nags me most about Ms. Sandberg’s upgraded version of feminism. Her whole focus seems to be on helping a few kindred souls become top dogs in a highly problematic economic and social environment – and reap millions or perhaps billions. Maybe because this sort of "compensation" is required for buying appropriate real estate and hiring the squad of domestic help (I assume, mostly female, at close to minimum wage) needed to maintain that healthy work-life balance; and for launching high-profile philanthropic campaigns? In any case, there is apparently nothing in her book (at least according to the reviews I have seen) that suggests the whole “winner-take-all/most” dog house should be humanized a bit – and a suggestion that this could be a worthwhile cause for successful female business leaders.

If I wanted to be really provocative, I could point to some recent research indicating that positions of power in the corporate world may fit better some restless, ruthless, quasi-sociopathic individuals who are driven to invest themselves fully into the pursuit of what Hobbes once called “dominion over others.” Or mention that many men are also held back by the inhibitions Ms. Sandberg bemoans – and anyone who has some reservations about jumping headlong into the rat race or taking the fast lane perhaps deserves some sympathy; to say nothing of slightly higher compensation and a more humane working environment. Or argue that the kind of exorbitant rewards which make anyone part of the “1%” may be particularly problematic when they come from companies which create "value" by performing a potential disservice to society – and to millions of oblivious “users.”

But such points would be futile as they would so obviously fly against the current winds of sociotechnological change. So power to the outliers - the best and the brightest, and most unmeek, of any gendered, racial/ethnic, lifestyle, or other background. And if anyone fails to admire them fully, let’s indeed, pin down the real reason – naked envy, what else could it be? Could a normal human being really not want to be in Ms. Sandberg’s shoes (minus, perhaps, the high heels)?