Facebook has a gender problem. We want Sheryl Sandberg to fix it.
Facebook has had a gender problem since its beginning. Now, with the publicity around Facebook’s upcoming IPO, business analysts, portfolio managers, potential investors, and feminist businesspeople are calling attention to the most glaring symptom of Facebook’s gender problem:
Facebook has only white men on its Board of Directors. No women, no men of color, no one to represent the 70+% of Facebook users and advertisers who are not white men.
As with all organizations, Facebook’s gender problem has deep roots and will be hard to fix. However, fixing this one thing– getting women on Facebook’s Board — is not only an easy step, it is also a powerful step. This is one piece of the gender problem that Facebook can fix right away.
And, Facebook has an advantage that most other organizations with gender problems do not. That advantage? A powerful, visible, well-like, self-described feminist as a COO - Sheryl Sandberg.
Sheryl Sandberg — the not-so-secret feminist businessperson
Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most successful business women of her generation. As the COO of Facebook, she runs a business that grossed $3.7 billion in 2011. In the hierarchy of Facebook, she is second only to Mark Zuckerberg, and significantly ahead of her closest possible peer, Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Ebersman.
Sandberg has set and executed the strategy behind Facebook’s internal and commercial success. She has also lead the way publicly, as Facebook has confronted complaints, burnished its corporate reputation, strengthened its corporate relationships, and worked to position the company for its IPO.
We could write pages and pages about how admirable a leader Sandberg is. Born into a family with a certain level of class, race, and social privilege, Sandberg has worked hard to turn her opportunities into real accomplishments. She has made hard choices, personally and professionally. And, Sandberg has earned her money and her position in ways that capitalism deems fair.
Sandberg is a highly-accomplished business women, a soon-to-be billionaire, and a public figure who’s influential nationally and internationally. And, Sandberg is also considered by many, both female and male, to be a role model for aspiring leaders.
Despite all this well deserved, well earned praise for Sandberg’s leadership, there is one thing that she hasn’t done. This one public action would demonstrate not only Sandberg’s power, but also her authenticity as a leader.
It’s time for Sandberg to put her words into action right at Facebook, and use her power to address Facebook’s gender issue. Starting at the top, with the Board of Directors.
Aligning Presence, Platform & Power
Leadership requires the leader to use her presence, her platform, and her power to make a difference. And authentic leadership requires a person to align her presence, her platform, and her power to maximize their impact and make her leadership real.
We can give Sandberg high marks for how she’s using her leadership presence.
Sandberg is an inspiring, positive, personable, approachable role model. We know she’s a mom, a wife, and a girlfriend’s girl friend. We know how Sandberg thinks, that she feels, and why. People have a strong sense of who she is, they find her inspiring, and they seek advice in her personal journey.
As a personal presence, Sandberg seems authentic. Her personal life and the story she tells about herself seem aligned- she’s struggled with the demands of being a woman, a mother and a spouse at the same time as an ambitious business person. She’s worked to make a personal link between what she believes and how she presents herself.
We can also give Sandberg high marks for how she’s using her leadership platform.
Sandberg is more than visible– she’s vocal.
Sandberg uses her platform to speak out, whether the message is about Facebook’s resistance to proposed chances in the EU’s data privacy policies or about how women must embrace and protect their ambition. With regard to her analysis of gender dynamics and her advice for women, she’s correct without being complete, and change-oriented without being controversial.
Even those of us who find Sandberg’s advice for change too individualistic and too tied to one kind of woman’s life story appreciate her anyway. Sandberg’s out there talking about feminism and women’s challenges on the road to equality in organizations. She talks about the ambition gap, taking a place at the table, not leaving until you’re ready to leave, and “owning your own power”.
Sandberg is a voice for women, and a voice for gender equality. In the world of business, she’s not only one of the loudest voices, she’s also one of very few advocating for gender equality.
But what about how Sandberg has used her power?
How well has Sandberg used her ability to influence other powerful players at Facebook so that the company addresses and resolves its gender problem?
Specifically, how well has Sandberg used her power to influence Zuckerberg and Facebook’s Board of Directors to demonstrate a commitment to women’s achievement?
If Sandberg were using her power within Facebook, we’d see corporate policies and business results that put her public admonitions into actions.
All those things Sandberg talks about for addressing gender equity? They would be designed into Facebook’s organizational systems. We would see policies designed to get women to the table as well as keep them there.
If Sandberg were using her leadership power within Facebook on behalf of gender equality, we might also see:
- More than one highly visible, highly valued female employee
- More than white, heterosexual women at the top
- A higher percentage of women employees and male employees of color, tracking these group’s representation in the overall paid work force
- Pay equity/ absence of gender-based pay gaps
- Explicit policies & systems for increasing inclusion, that would addressing gender, race/ethnicity, as well as moving toward a work culture/ corporate culture that is free of sexism
- Work life fit policies that help men and women stay connected to their families and their communities while contributing fully at work
- Facebook Site policies that support women (for example, policies that can tell the difference between a photo of a breastfeeding mom and a photo of a topless pron star)
I recognize that these are all relatively big changes for an organization to make. Certainly, Sandberg has demonstrated Facebook’s support for women by recruiting other prominent women to key positions of responsibility (and hopefully, influence) within Facebook. And, she has demonstrated her support for women on Boards of Directors by recommending women for positions on the Boards of other companies. There are likely to be other efforts by Sandberg that we simply don’t see, because we aren’t privy to the inside of the Facebook organization.
Yet, precisely because Sandberg’s possible internal efforts are invisible to us, it’s all the more important that she demonstrate her leadership by moving Facebook to do something visible to everyone.
Sandberg needs to use her power to get some women on Facebook’s Board of Directors
Sandberg should use her power at Facebook to get talented, competent and inspiring business women — yes, plural, in “at least 2 or 3″ onto Facebook’s Board. Right now, the board is made up of “rich white guys—not terribly representative of the wide open world Facebook claims to represent“.
Getting women on the Facebook Board would be a public, symbolic, inspirational, functional and financially-responsible demonstration of commitment to gender equity at Facebook.
There are any number of reasons why Facebook should put women on its Board of Directors, right away:
- Women on the Facebook Board will help improve Facebook’s financial effectiveness and strategic thinking
- Women on the Facebook Board will represent Facebook’s largest groups of users
- Women on the Facebook Board will represent Facebook’s most profitable group of users
- Women on the Facebook Board will demonstrate that Facebook is a progressive corporation with enlightened (as in, not sexist, not racist) assumptions about human talent, skill and value
- And, women on the Facebook Board will burnish Facebook’s public image, keeping the stock price high.
When it comes right down to it, if Sandberg is really to be considered a ‘powerful’ woman, or a real leader, she needs to demonstrate that she has power, by tackling the ultimate leadership challenge– directing her influence upward, to get her boss(es) to do the right thing.
Sandberg herself has said that, to achieve gender equity, we need more women at the top of corporations.
Citing gender inequality as “this generation’s central moral problem”, Sandberg told Barnard graduates last Spring,
We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.
If, as Sandberg claims, there’s a “stalled revolution especially with women at the top”, Sheryl Sandberg herself can jump start it. Not with her presence or her platform alone, but with her power.
What We Want — What We Need — From Sheryl Sandberg
We don’t need Sheryl Sandberg to resign, as contrition for some kind of leadership failure.
We DO need Sandberg to publicly “own her own power”.
We DO need Sheryl Sandberg to put her own advice into action right there in the organization she leads.
We need Sandberg to make gender equality happen — starting at the top, at Facebook.
There are a whole lot of us out here, rooting for you, Sheryl. You’ve told us what to do. Now, show us how it’s done.
No Women on Facebook Board Shows White Male Influence , by Carol Hymowitz, Bloomberg, Feb. 2., 2012
Sheryl Sandberg: What She Saw At The Revolution, by Kevin Conley, Vogue
Heather A. Haveman and Lauren S. Beresford, (2012) If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You the Boss? Explaining the Persistent Vertical Gender Gap in Management, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 639: 114
The Path to More Women in Senior Leadership: A User’s Guide By Anne Perschel, PhD, and Jane Perdue Summarized at Forbes.com