Jessa Crispin Those feminists who were quick to embrace Sandberg should now publicly condemn her. Otherwise, they risk proving their critics right https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/17/facebook-sheryl-sandberg-feminism?CMP=share_btn_tw Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Testify To Senate Committee On Foreign Influence Operations
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 5: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
‘Sandberg offered herself up as a role model for working women, but now she’s looking more like a cautionary tale’ Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The latest New York Times investigation into the goings-on at Facebook is less of a revelation and more of a reiteration of what was already on the record about the powerful platform: not only does Facebook have a problem with the dissemination of propaganda by the alt-right, white nationalists, and international genocide purveyors, those who own and operate the site have known about this and have repeatedly chosen not to address it.
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Whether those problems are caused by Russians who sought to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump or the Myanmar military seeking to cleanse its state of the Rohingya people, Facebook has stubbornly delayed examining its role in geopolitical shifts all over the world. But people have been writing articles about the misdeeds of social media platforms for years, and little oversight, internal reform, or mass exodus of users ever follows.
The newest piece did reveal one thing, however: the vital role its COO, Sheryl Sandberg, played in all of this. This is not the story, however, of the one woman bravely speaking truth to power. Nor is it the ethical influence a celebrated feminist leader had on a company concerned primarily with protecting its economic well being and that of its shareholders. Rather, Sandberg yelled at her employee, Facebook’s security chief, for daring to investigate these issues, and then tried to cover up all he had found. Sandberg also played a pivotal role in lobbying top lawmakers in Washington DC to limit unwanted regulation and scrutiny.
Sandberg, of course, became an aspirational heroine among mainstream, self-empowerment feminists with her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. There, she urged women to join corporate culture, to reform workplaces from the inside, by striving to reach high levels of power and influence. While many feminists, mostly those originating from activist and not merely commentary classes, attacked Sandberg’s project of ambition and wealth from the beginning, she was defended by some of the most prominent names in feminism.
Supporters such as Gloria Steinem, former Jezebel editor Anna Holmes, Naomi Wolf, and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg lent a feminist legitimacy to Sandberg’s work, and helped deflect legitimate criticism about her blindness to class, race, or the lived experience of the majority of workers in an age of wild income inequality and financial precarity.
This New York Times investigation is the logical endpoint of corporate feminism
This New York Times investigation is the logical endpoint of corporate feminism. Sandberg and her Lean In Foundation urged women to buy into the values of the contemporary workplace and then use their new positions of power to create a better, fairer workplace. Granted, Sandberg was writing about things like maternity leave and flexible work hours, not about what to do when your office becomes a shill for supporters of ethnic cleansing or a pure ethnostate.
One, then, should look to Sandberg’s example and see what she actually used her influence for. From her position of power, Sandberg intimidated her employees into silence and wasn’t transparent with users about Russia’s part in the election of Trump, used her influence with politicians on both side of the aisle to avoid any much-needed regulation and oversight by the government, and slandered her critics as antisemites.
Why, then, when Facebook is rightly criticized for its machinations and manipulations is it always Mark Zuckerberg’s name being tossed around? Even now, with all of the revelations about Sandberg in the Times piece, the bulk of the public shaming is falling on his shoulders. He is the founder and CEO, yes, but it’s not a leap to guess that it is Sandberg’s feminist friends and affiliations that protects her from criticism.
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She must be the one reforming corporate boy’s club culture from the inside; she must be the civilizing force barely keeping the organization from tipping into the abyss of greed and toxic masculinity. It seems clear what Sandberg truly is instead: a team player. And her team is not the working women of the world. It is the corporate culture that has groomed, rewarded, and protected her throughout her career.
Feminism has become a kind of shield for powerful women to hide behind. Call yourself a feminist and Gloria Steinem will jump on a stage with you. Women’s media will shower you with praise. Feminist commentators will overlook your obvious dubious dealings in the past and defend you against savvier critics. Ivanka Trump called herself a feminist, and commentators assumed she would be the civilizing force of the White House. Santander bank chief Ana Botin’s announcement that she was a feminist was met mostly with credulity, despite her bank’s mass evictions throughout Spain that have caused untold amounts of suffering, illness and suicide.
Which is why those feminists who were so quick to embrace Sandberg should now publicly condemn her. If feminism wants to claim any interest in the safety and quality of life of women – a demographic that includes those who have become victims in the rise of rightwing terrorists, many of whom organized and were radicalized online – the most visible spokespeople for the movement must distance themselves from a woman who prioritized profits over ethics and her job over countless lives.
Because otherwise they will prove their critics right – critics who have argued that feminism has become more centered on the individual than the structural; become less interested in upending power imbalances than gaining the position of power and then using the imbalance to create profit; and failed to reckon with and overcome its racist, classist and heteronormative past.
Sandberg offered herself up as a role model for working women, but now she’s looking more like a cautionary tale. She was right about one thing in Lean In: more women than ever before are entering the worlds of work and politics, and they have the power to create meaningful reforms. What has yet to be seen, however, is whether those reformers will bring truly feminist values to the world, or whether they will spread misery and pain.
Jessa Crispin is the author of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto