Is Sheryl Sandberg as good for feminism as she is for Facebook?
I can’t say I often spend my days off watching stock market tickers on TV, but that’s essentially what I found myself doing yesterday afternoon as CNBC provided some characteristically frenzied coverage of the Facebook IPO, from the Menlo Park gathering of newly minted employees to that awkward moment when its shares had to be propped up by its bankers.
But fun as it was to watch “hoodie billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg ring the Nasdaq’s opening bell; intriguing as it was to hear the analysis of various CNBC pundits on the “first day crazies” and “amateur hour” that delayed trading; my interest in all-things-Facebook is rapidly boiling down to one question: how important is Sheryl Kara Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, to feminism?
Sandberg is more accurately described as a female business role model than a feminist per se. The first qualification is not in doubt. She is the fifth most powerful woman in the world, according to the business magazine Forbes. CNN describes her as Zuckerberg’s “right-hand woman” and “the number two”, and though she does not currently have a seat on the board of Facebook, she may well do soon enough – in any case, she moonlights as an independent director of the Walt Disney Company.
While she may not be granted the “genius” tag reserved for company founders, she’s commonly referred to as “the grown-up” at the company; the one who looks after, what’s that, oh yes, the figuring out how to make money bit. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, believes that if Zuckerberg hadn’t hired Sandberg from Google in 2008, the company’s flotation would never have happened. Kirkpatrick also thinks Sandberg, an ex-Treasury employee, could be US president one day. “She’s got it. She’s got the whole package,” he told CNN.
Whether President Sandberg ever does take up residency in the Oval Office, I think it’s fair to assume that everything she says publicly is uttered with political aspirations in mind. And in this context, it is a relief that Sandberg, like would-be president Hillary Clinton, tends to be vocal on gender issues.
What she actually says doesn’t exactly read like a feminist manifesto 100 per cent of the time. She’s dismissive of the need for affirmative action, for example – not that that’s a crime – and has attributed women’s lack of progress to limits that they place on themselves, rather than the barriers posed by corporate sexism. She’s risen so high she can’t see any evidence of a glass ceiling beneath her. Indeed, both The Atlantic and Nerve.com have teased through the minuses of Sandberg’s gender philosophy – the key article they both draw on is this brilliant long-read New Yorker profile from July last year.
But Sandberg isn’t the first and won’t be the last to argue that power is something that’s meant to be taken, not something you sit around waiting for someone to give to you. And you don’t have to be rich enough to employ a nanny, as Sandberg and her husband do, to be able to take basic advice such as “make sure your partner [at home] is a real partner”.
Speaking of home, Sandberg recently claimed she leaves work at 5.30 pm every day to go to hers and have dinner with her children, an admission that won a generally positive response. She shouldn’t, of course, feel in any way obliged to counter the snipes of the anti working mother brigade by highlighting traditionally feminine domestic duties. But on balance it’s terribly healthy that a senior female Silicon Valley executive doesn’t feel the need to keep family life hidden away as a great unmentionable. Sandberg is a mother as well as an elite businesswoman – her subtext was clearly that she goes home at a reasonable hour because she’s super-efficient at her job.
Unsurprisingly, she is now much in demand as a speaker on the US college commencement address circuit. Here’s a quote from a speech she gave to graduating students of the college Barnard last year: “A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”
Feminism is a broad church, with plenty of room for semantic debate. But to my ears that ranks as one of the most feminist statements you’re likely to get out of a millionaire (soon-to-be-billionaire) businesswoman. Though Sandberg’s actions, beliefs and life experiences are inevitably going to be as much if not more influenced by her immense wealth than the fact that she possesses female anatomy, I’m still glad Zuckerberg chose a woman to be his number two.
It’s not hard to like Sheryl a hell of a lot more than Facebook itself.