I was shocked and saddened on Saturday to learn of the death of Dave Goldberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey who is probably better known as Mrs. Sheryl Sandberg, at age 47. I don’t know him or his wife, but as a guy about that age who also has two young kids, I was very much affected by the news of his death.
Readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of Sandberg, but that’s irrelevant: It’s a tragedy to lose a husband and father at such a young age. My heart goes out to his family.
That said, I was startled to see the massive, above-the-fold story on page 1 of today’s Times Business section: “Dave Goldberg Was Lifelong Women’s Advocate.”
Are you kidding me?
The Times’ Jodi Kantor, who is usually quite good, wrote this piece of
According to Kantor, Goldberg grew up in progressive Minnesota, where, a friend says, “there was woman power in every aspect of our lives.”
Later, when Dave Goldberg was in high school and his prom date, Jill Chessen, stayed silent in a politics class, he chastised her afterward. He said, “You need to speak up,” Ms. Chessen recalled in an interview. “They need to hear your voice.”
Later, when Goldberg was CEO of a digital music company and one of his employees had a baby, he—wait for it—”kept giving her challenging assignments…but also let her work from home one day a week.”
After Goldberg’s music company was bought by Yahoo, Kantor writes, “Mr. Goldberg became known for distributing roses to all the women in the office on Valentine’s Day.”
This is feminism? I would have thought that a boss giving roses to women who work for him might fall into the opposite ledger, even on Valentine’s Day. But I guess the definition of feminism is different depending on what social class you belong to. If you went to Harvard, according to the New York Times, you can give roses to your female employees; if you went to SUNY-Albany, that’s a serious no-no.
Here’s another example of Goldberg’s work on behalf of women:
“When Mellody Hobson, a friend and finance executive, wrote a chapter of “Lean In” about women of color for the college edition of the book, Mr. Goldberg gave her feedback on the draft, a clue to his deep involvement.”
Mellody Hobson, if you don’t know, is one of the world’s richest women, and not just because she’s a partner in a Chicago investment firm, but because she’s married to Star Wars creator George Lucas. Reading her chapter is not exactly philanthropy; it’s a sign of how well-connected the world’s richest people are. There are greater efforts to make on your wife’s behalf.
As Goldberg and Sandberg became immensely rich, Kantor continues, they hashed out their roles in their marriage.
He paid the bills, she planned the birthday parties, and both often left their offices at 5:30 so they could eat dinner with their children before resuming work afterward.
Never mind that this is a predictably gender-based allocation of responsibilities (he handles the money, she makes social plans), but…so frigging what? Every single married couple in America has a division of labor something like this. It may be worth pointing out that both could leave their offices at 5:30, because no one was in a position to tell them that they couldn’t. And when they got home—a home, by the way, with six bedrooms, a gym, a screening room, an office, a basement with full bar and wine cellar, and so on—they likely found their kids freshly scrubbed, dinner being made, and the house spotlessly clean—because they are rich, and have people to do this sort of thing for them. And I am not begrudging them their wealth, which they earned fair and square—just saying it’s a lot easier to be a model parent when have essentially limitless financial resources.
I want to elaborate on what bothers me about all the commemoration of Goldberg as a feminist champion, but first, let me say that none of what I write is intended as a slight against Dave Goldberg. He sounds like a really impressive, good human being. So far as I can tell, he never proclaimed himself a great humanitarian, so my criticisms are only intended for those who present him thusly.
Because to champion Goldberg as a “lifelong woman’s advocate” based on these works is ridiculous. Goldberg did the same things that millions of men do every day in their lives: We treat women with respect and we support them professionally and personally. This is not, frankly, a big deal, unless you’re comparing him to Isis. Or Floyd Mayweather.
So calling Goldberg a “lifelong advocate for women” is kind of like calling Sheryl Sandberg a feminist—it’s true, but in a mild, setting-the-bar-low kind of way. This is feminism-lite. Wow—you let your new mom employee work from home one day a week. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s really not a big deal. You read a book chapter written by a wealthy woman who is writing an essay on feminism for another wealthy woman. That’s not advocating for women; that’s just good business.
The problem, I think, is that you can’t say Dave Goldberg ever really risked anything for his advocacy, ever really challenged anything that was difficult—at least, not that I’ve ever seen written about in public. He and his wife were a good match that way. Sheryl Sandberg’s answer for women fighting the glass ceiling was to speak up more, to “lean in”—as if institutionalized corporate sexism were so easily conquered. I don’t think Ellen Pao deserved to win her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, but it’s possible that she did more for women in Silicon Valley than Sheryl Sandberg ever has. She certainly risked more. When asked by Bloomberg about Pao, by the way, Sandberg said this:
“I thought what was so interesting about the trial is that so many women, not just in technology, but across industries, see their own experiences there.”
I can’t imagine a safer, less threatening answer than that—it completely neutralizes the idea that tech has a special problem with sex discrimination, and refrains from commenting one way or another on the merits of Pao’s case. It’s the kind of bland, meaningless pap that gives credence to all the rumors that Sandberg aspires to run for public office. She’d probably do great at that.
Finally, let’s remember that Goldberg and Sandberg were an immensely rich power couple. Their wealth is relevant: It makes them a sexy media story that gets them a lot of friendly ink—especially as Facebook becomes an increasingly vital partner for established media.
But at the same time, Goldberg and Sandberg’s wealth should have liberated them to do far more than they have done—at least to be seriously considered as lifelong advocates for women. Because let’s face it: rearranging your work schedule or making sure you’re home to kiss your kids goodnight is a helluva lot easier when you have the best child care money can buy; the best schools money can pay for; and when you are the boss of your own company or very close. This is easy. Kantor doesn’t provide one example of something Goldberg did where he actually risked social ostracism or money or continued employment or—well, anything, really.
What is hard is really fighting for women against people who fight back when you don’t have resources, don’t have money, don’t have allies, don’t have media access, don’t have skills. Erin Brockovich. Norma Rae. Mulala Yousafazai, the girl in Afghanistan who got shot by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. These are advocates for women. Giving your new mom employee a day to work from home is a perfectly fine thing. But it doesn’t make you a women’s advocate in any meaningful way.
One final note on this: Neither Sandberg nor Survey Monkey have said a word about how Goldberg died, and the mainstream media has said nothing about it. I have never before seen a person whose death generated such an enormous amount of attention—particularly such a young person—without a single established news source addressing the lack of a stated cause of death.
Dave Goldberg’s story isn’t fully told yet.
Update: The Times has a report saying that Goldberg may have died after exercising.