Facebook may have started as a way to rank one woman’s hotness over another’s, but it has been quick to produce its first feminists. Everything goes faster in Silicon Valley: code is written overnight; engineers get around the office on aerodynamic skateboards called RipStiks; a company less than ten years old is worth $104 billion for a day before losing $35 billion in value. And so, as Sheryl Sandberg, Silicon Valley’s ‘pom-pom girl for feminism’, might have said to herself, why can’t a movement effectively stalled for thirty years be kickstarted with a 15-minute online talk, a book with an eerily alliterative and vaguely chiasmic title and very many appearances on acid-bright TV studio sofas?
Sandberg is Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer (she runs the business side). Top in her year at Harvard Business School, she rose to Clinton’s White House, McKinsey, Google and finally Facebook before she noticed that most of her circle had fallen away. Lean In is the story of her political awakening and her pep talk both for the women who leaned back and the ones coming up behind her. Katherine Losse, Facebook employee #51 (the company now numbers 4619), would probably count as one of Sandberg’s lean-backs for having quit her job as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s corporate ghost-writer. The ease of Sandberg’s ascent does something light-headed to her feminism, just as Losse’s experience of being an English major in a company built around the late nights, taste for over-salty junk food and pretensions to world domination of a group of computer nerds does something lumpen to hers. Sandberg and Losse don’t see the world around them as millennial: ‘These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011,’ Sandberg says of T-shirts with slogans like ‘Pretty like Mommy’. ‘You were like Peggy on Mad Men,’ a friend tells Losse the day she leaves the social network, comparing her to the secretary turned copywriter in an imaginary 1950s ad agency.
Losse joined Facebook’s user support team when she got fed up with her job writing labels for cucumber facewash. She was only the second woman to join the company, so on her first day the email address firstname.lastname@example.org was still available. As Facebook’s ur-Kate, she was ‘queen of a world in which every other Kate would be derived from my archetype’. While she wrote answers to users’ questions (‘What does “poking” mean?’), she surveyed the kingdom. Fridges were filled with every type of fizzy drink; ‘stylised women with large breasts bursting from small tops’ were drawn on the walls; engineers whose working day began at 7 p.m. played with gadgets while lounging on human-sized bean bags. But these chillaxing engineers, led by Zuckerberg, were the ones who could bring the site back up with a few hours of frantic coding, and everyone else, considered ‘duller, incapable of quick and intelligent thought’, was there to serve the thing they had created and, therefore, them. ‘Everyone upstairs is dumb,’ they would say when Facebook moved into a bigger building and the engineers got their own floor.
The division of labour seemed mid-century to Losse, who saw that the way to get on was to be one of the boys. She came up with the idea of renting a pool house where they could play Beer Pong (the object is to land a ping-pong ball in a glass of beer that your opponent has to down) while listening to their favourite robot electronica, Daft Punk, in the sunny downtime between coding sessions and answering emails. On the weekly trips they made to Fry’s Electronics – they didn’t want to miss the arrival of a new component – she would occupy herself marvelling at the Wild West theme of the Palo Alto branch. One Sunday morning she found a statue of a gun-toting Annie Oakley with her knee up on a bale of Linux manuals. Though her salary was a great deal lower than those of the boy engineers she hung out with, they would give her a weekend pass for the Coachella music festival or a plane ticket to Vegas, where they would video and photograph themselves shooing away pretty girls and update their Facebook profiles in real time. They had created the News Feed feature in their own image, as ‘a boyishly cold, digitally perfected ego’, so they knew which ‘stories’ their algorithms wanted. Losse adopted a wry, weary postmodern tone and began posting crude horizontal hearts (<3) on every story. Even this, which Losse understands as a quiet protest, showed she understood them, and she was put on an engineer-level salary to manage the translation of the site into French and Spanish and German and Japanese and Italian. Facebook really was conquering the world.
Losse gets closer still to Facebook’s vision when she is appointed Zuckerberg’s voice on earth. The first email she ghosted announced her appointment (‘It’s a good story,’ Zuckerberg said). She was good at it: ‘This pretty much sounds exactly like what I would write,’ he comments, but ‘I never use a comma before a conjunction.’ One afternoon Zuckerberg asked her to start work on a series of longer posts setting out his thinking on where Facebook was headed. The topics were ‘revolutions and giving people the power to share; openness as a force in our generation; moving from countries to companies; everyone becoming developers and how we support that; net-native generation of companies; young people building companies; purpose-driven companies; starting Facebook as a small project and big theory’. When she asked what he meant by companies over countries, he said ‘it means that the best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company. It’s the best model for getting things done and bringing your vision to the world.’ Private companies don’t need to worry about getting elected or breaking laws like old-fashioned, unwieldy nation states do. Facebook’s unencumbered, efficient, agile, hackerish style is to make everything seem ‘easy’ – and when you need, in one of Zuckerberg’s favourite phrases, to ‘move fast and break things’, you just shrug. You just shrug when you change the site’s privacy settings overnight to capture lucrative personal information and make Facebook’s IPO one of the biggest in Silicon Valley. Losse didn’t write the posts accidentally on purpose. A few months later she sold her equity and moved to Marfa, Texas, where the coverage is so bad you can’t even check Facebook on your phone.
The ur-Kate was at Facebook long enough to see the arrival of its real queen, or perhaps its queen mother. Zuckerberg introduces her at one of their company-wide Friday meetings; Losse remembers him commenting that Sandberg had ‘really good skin’ and announcing that ‘everyone should have a crush on Sheryl.’ Sandberg endeared herself to Facebook’s women as well as its men. ‘Tell me everything,’ she said to Losse, and when she’d heard everything, got the colleague who kept suggesting a threesome discreetly demoted. Sandberg’s desk is neat and expensive gifts keep arriving – Louboutin shoes, Frette candles. It wasn’t just that she was story-worthy enough to deflect attention from Zuckerberg (the 2010 movie The Social Network was in development when Sandberg arrived in 2008): she runs the company in such a way that questions are ‘already answered’ and ‘efficiency is assumed.’
Lean In was controversial even before it came out. Sandberg’s reasonable point – that women should take responsibility for their sorry fate too – was known and had been ridiculed across the press from Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column to the more careful refutation of Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor of politics, in the much tweeted-about Atlantic cover story ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. But there aren’t too many corporate books that call themselves ‘sort of a feminist manifesto’ in an age when famous women from Taylor Swift to Sandberg’s friend, ‘the pregnant CEO’ Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, don’t like to be called feminists. And even though many people have pointed out that it’s bizarre to take advice from a woman who is so rich normal rules don’t apply, you can respect her for sticking her neck out.
Her book is full of her own brand of ‘tell me everything’ likeability: here she is, her feet pregnantly swollen two shoe sizes, waddling across the Google car park; there she is again, perkily picking up the phone on her first day as chief of staff at the Treasury only to get sworn at three times and have the phone slammed down on her; and here she is very nearly accepting Zuckerberg’s first offer, before her brother-in-law reminded her a man would negotiate (Sandberg has a cute line in not following her own advice). She likes to be wry – ‘I have even heard a few men say that they are heading home to “babysit” their children’ – and makes jokes, of a kind: Her husband is ‘the best partner I could imagine – even though he’s wrong about my TV shows being bad’. She never leaves someone faceless as ‘my executive assistant’ or ‘my colleague at McKinsey’, she names them. Sandberg is nice. And that is also part of her point: the world hasn’t changed enough for women to behave as they please, so it makes good business sense to be nice along with competent. (There’s a lot of not-niceness involved in telling the world to change.)
Lean In grew out of a punchy TED talk called ‘Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders’ and a teary commencement address given at Barnard. Here the stark messages of the slogan-like chapter titles – ‘Sit at the Table’, ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ and ‘Don’t Leave Before You Leave’ – have been softened with caveats and relentlessly backed up with research. She shows that the biggest study of whether children are harmed by going to nursery found that they aren’t; she shares evidence of ‘stereotype threat’ (girls being reminded that they are girls means lower scores on maths tests, because girls aren’t supposed to be good at maths); she identifies ‘tiara syndrome’, the belief that hard work will one day be rewarded with a tiara-like promotion. She likens solutions to these problems to dieting, which also counters biology with willpower:
For example, storing large amounts of fat was necessary to survive when food was scarce, so we evolved to crave it and consume it when it’s available. But in this era of plenty, we no longer need large amounts of fuel in reserve, so instead of simply giving in to this inclination, we exercise and limit caloric intake. We use willpower to combat biology, or at least we try.
Sandberg’s world is distinctly pre-Freudian; her syndromes and threats are straightforward once understood and can be dealt with if you apply yourself. It’s as if there were no such things as self-sabotage with chocolate éclairs, or the id, or the ego. Losse remembers being told by one of the founders of Facebook that the website was ‘flirty’, but there is something clean and sexless about interacting in its blue and white expanses. Part of the social network’s utopian appeal is that it’s a space that makes communication easier – instant, always available – instead of making some things harder and other things impossible (Losse got close to a hacker turned Facebook engineer called Thrax, but despite hand-holding, sharing beds, chatting electronically all day and going to gigs together, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to have sex).
A plus-sized belief in the power of the individual can be seen in her chapters on sharing housework and childcare. Sandberg provides evidence for the notion that when men and women share the work 50/50 (same sex partners, apparently, don’t have this problem), their children are happier and less sexist, talented women don’t fall out of the workforce, men who quite fancy staying at home can and couples have more sex. And then she shares her own stories. She worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as a minimum at Google before she took advantage of the generous maternity allowance of three months off. On her first day back she cried on her way to work, and decided something had to change. So she and her assistant concocted a plan to adjust her hours to a more historically normal 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. by making sure she wasn’t seen going to her car and slyly arranging the first and last meetings of the day away from her corner office. Sandberg argues that talking about demands at home with your employer and your husband can pay off, as does learning to be happy with your husband cleaning the kitchen sink in an unorthodox fashion. Her pragmatic way of always trying to find the win-win (though Gaby Hinsliff’s book Half a Wife seems actually useful) might make you feel less helpless, but it can only go so far. Sandberg includes a few sentences about the wisdom of companies offering ‘family-friendly benefits’ (and the stigma involved in taking them up), but she barely mentions legislation. Even if there were an army of perfect lean-ins who ‘made their partners real partners’ they would still be unable to challenge excessive working hours as you can in Europe or take more than three months’ maternity leave as you can in the UK. The revolution happens ‘one family at a time’, she says, but that not only risks losing hard-won advances that aren’t fixed in the statute book, it means each woman will have to cross that bridge as she comes to it, on her own.
As Sandberg’s book moves to a rousing end – Gloria Steinem is quoted more and more often, and there are mentions of marching ‘in the streets’ and of a ‘wave’ of women leaders – it becomes clear that this generation’s problem is the previous generation’s failure. Sandberg mentions 1951 only once – her most common starting point is the 1970s: between 1970 and 2010 women’s pay went up from 59 to 77 cents on the dollar, while ‘a dozen eggs have gone up ten times’ those 18 cents in forty years. The 1970s were supposed to be the high point. It was in other places: Denmark legislated for highly subsidised state-run nurseries in 1976. By contrast, the women’s liberation movement in Britain asked for four things at the first national conference in Oxford in 1970: equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour childcare. And now we have the most expensive childcare in Europe, creaking 1967 abortion laws which ought to have been reformed under Labour, and courts that have only just decided the 1970 Equal Pay Act is secure enough to fight civil cases with. All conventional histories proclaim second-wave feminism a success, but from here that success looks partial and the older generation’s insistence on it counter-productive. Instead of the busywork of leaning in, we could be restating our demands at the 2013 women’s lib conference. That is, if we weren’t so preoccupied with checking our news feeds.
Sandberg doesn’t want us to be alone and embattled. Her last injunction is to form ‘Lean In Circles’ of up to ten people who will support you while you speak up and apply willpower and negotiate with your husband. They sound like nothing so much as 1970s consciousness-raising circles. But this time your real social network is supported by an online social network, leanin.org. By signing up (or logging in from Facebook), you can read ‘Lean In Stories’ by Oprah Winfrey and Senator Elizabeth Warren and watch videos about negotiation and team dynamics. Perhaps Sandberg’s bigger aim is to do something that seemed possible in 2004, when Losse was creating a profile from a café on the Johns Hopkins campus – engineering Facebook for girls. And if that leads her back to the White House, from company to country, so be it.