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  • Is Sheryl Sandberg as good for feminism as she is for Facebook?

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:25 am | by Laura Slattery

    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.

  • How the rich get richer at 90 per cent the speed of light

    March 25, 2011 @ 10:25 am | by Laura Slattery

    Thinking about a career in stock market trading? Start by learning how to swim, because the global financial centres of the future may be located in the middle of the ocean. According to this fascinating report by BBC science and technology reporter Jason Palmer, mid-ocean island chains may become the optimal location for financial hubs because high-frequency traders are seeking to exploit the speed of light.

    High-frequency trading carried out by computers often depends on the varying prices of a financial instrument in two separate geographic stock markets. So exactly how fast the data travels – and how far it has to travel – can make the difference between a profit and a loss. As Palmer outlines in his report, Harvard physicist Alexander Wissner-Gross told a meeting of the American Physical Society this week that financial institutions are increasingly looking at ways to exploit this trick of the light. The only limit is the speed of light, and trades can now travel at nearly 90 per cent of this ultimate limit.

    Indeed, one of the many people to have recognised the profit potential of high-frequency trading is Irish businessman Brian Conlon, last year’s winner of the Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year award. His company, the Newry-based First Derivatives, started developing and selling its own software for “low-latency, high-volume” trading three years ago.

    “If you think about highly liquid stock like IBM or Microsoft, the price is going to change maybe five, 10, 20 times a second,” he explained in an interview with Barry O’Halloran last September. “So if you’re going to make a decision like ‘I want to buy IBM when the price hits 100’, then you have to make that decision within microseconds or milliseconds. If you don’t get your order into the exchange, then the price will have changed and the price will be invalid. Similarly, if you look at any trading screen, they are ticking many times a second. If you’re doing a program trade you have to make that decision fast or else your price is out of date.”

    First Derivatives’ software is programmed to make these decisions – buy IBM at 100 and sell it at 110 – without human intervention and the risk of all those nasty “fat finger” losses. Algorithmic trading such as this is driving the mushrooming volume in daily global financial trades – in New York alone, the number of transactions carried out every day has gone from five million a decade ago to over a billion today. As a result, Conlon’s company, which he started in a spare bedroom 15 years ago, is doing very nicely, thank you.

    But why might a chunk of Wall Street eventually relocate to, say, the Azores? It’s because the latencies in global fibre-optic links – the time delay for a signal to shift it from one global financial centre to another – are lower in some locations for certain trades. Last year, Dr Wissner-Gross mapped the optimal points where financial transactions should originate in order to maximise the chances of buying low and selling high. The answer was midway between the two major financial hubs involved in the trade. This often meant the ideal location was at nippy high latitudes or mid-ocean.

    Unsurprisingly, companies weren’t too keen on deploying floating data centres in places where there’s nothing but blue sea on the horizon – not even a Costa Coffee – so now Dr Wissner-Gross is helping firms work out which geographic stock markets they are best positioned to trade from their current location. But there’s still a clear physical advantage, and therefore competitive advantage, to moving, he maintains. Desert island trades, here we come. How does the Atlantic Stock Exchange or the WaveStoxx 1000 sound?

    Just remember: if you can make money at 90 per cent the speed of light, you can lose it that fast too.

  • Spin spin sugar

    February 14, 2011 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    Overdosing on sugar may be a traditional Valentine’s Day celebration / survival strategy, but lately the world’s supply of the sweet stuff has slumped like human energy levels – ooh – approximately 20 minutes after chocolate mallow consumption.

    Prices hit a 30-year high recently after Cyclone Yasi was estimated by the producers’ group Canegrowers to have obliterated at least a quarter of Queensland’s sugar cane crop. As a result of the damage in Australia – the world’s third largest sugar exporter – commodity forecasters including Rabobank have warned that global sugar output will probably fall short of demand this year. For its part, the European Union is mulling higher import limits following the panicky clearing of supermarket shelves in Portugal in December.

    Before the birth such complicated deficit-enhancers as CFDs, CDOs and CDSs, there was a time when commodities occupied a more central part of the financial news. This “Dublin Weekly Sugar Report” from the Irish Times of April 15th, 1889, could easily be used to describe last week’s frenetic global sugar trade: “The market has continued to move upward, with considerable rapidity and with some excitement, broken only by momentary pauses… Business has been very large and has partaken a good deal of a speculative character.”

    Updates from Liverpool produce markets into the 20th century went into superfine detail on “Messrs. Tate and Lyle’s” quotations for crystals, granulated and yellows, even citing a price for “Afternoon tea” cubes. Today, raw sugar is the most commonly quoted benchmark, though white sugar futures are studied carefully by food analysts eager to calculate margins and growth prospects for companies, including Tate & Lyle, in the refined sugar and sweetener business.

    The sugar rush in Portugal – the first European country to face a shortage of sugar in more than 30 years – was a brief, temporary affair and some forecasters predict that greater output from Brazil could actually prompt a swing into a world sugar surplus. Still, life without cheap-and-ready access to glucose is something to ponder next time the winds gather up in a crop-destroying frenzy: Valentine’s Day 2012 could be a bitter one for more than just the broken-hearted.


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