The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, BusinessWeek, Forbes—every single news organization Google can find covers the news that Facebook just named Sheryl Sandberg to its board from a gender perspective.
After months of enduring ridicule and criticism for having no women on its board, the social network headed into a May 18 initial public offering that’s since become a case study in what not to do. The issue wasn’t just how the shares were priced and traded, but how the whole IPO package was handled and sold to investors.
Sandberg, with her extensive global network and roots in Washington, is clearly more sensitive to such matters. She’s in touch with advertisers, customers, investor groups, and other women leaders in a way that her boss is not. She understands the power of role models, both inside and outside the company. She knows about the pressure to put more women on boards…
It’s fascinating to read how sexist the paragraph above is, how laden with gender-stereotypes: Sandberg is “more sensitive,” more “in touch,” more understanding, more aware of the pressure… Why? Because she’s female, clearly. (I will grant that she’s probably more in touch with other women leaders than Mark Zuckerberg is, but I didn’t know that close ties to female leaders were essential to Facebook’s growth.) Imagine how upset this writer (who’s female) would be if a man wrote such a paragraph about a woman, but the stereotypes were less flattering.
I’m just a blogger, so, you know, take what I say with a grain of salt…but there are a few awkward points to raise about this inspiring drama of female empowerment.
First , Sheryl Sandberg was the prime mover behind that disastrous IPO; she was the person who picked Morgan Stanley’s Michael Grimes to manage it…which he didn’t.
Says the Times:
Grimes’ connections have counted. In 2001, he befriended Sheryl Sandberg, who became a young Google executive and is now the chief operating officer at Facebook. Mr. Grimes regularly visited Ms. Sandberg, offering free advice to the search company on financial issues like stock sales and acquisitions…
And that worked out pretty well.
I’m sure it’s a fine thing that Facebook has a woman on its board. The company was clearly having a rough time without one.
But by obsessing on Sandberg’s gender—an obsession Sandberg has very smartly cultivated—the media overlooks something more important: the fact that adding Sandberg to the board is a textbook case of bad corporate governance.
Mark Zuckerberg already runs the company in a high-handed way; he describes Sandberg as his “partner.” She simply can not play the role a corporate board member should play: that of a strong, independent and external voice. A role that is particularly important when you have an imperious CEO. And as the Times’ Dealbook section does point out, even with Sandberg, Facebook has a small board for a company of its size.
Given what’s gone on in recent years with Hewlett-Packard and that little thing called, you know, the financial crisis, have we forgotten so quickly the importance of corporate governance, and the devastating impact of crony capitalism as practiced by rubber-stamp corporate boards?
Or would a woman never make those mistakes?
One related issue that people still occasionally discuss is executive compensation. Think Sheryl Sandberg will fight to rein in out of control executive pay? Sandberg has worked at Facebook for four years. In that time, she has been granted 44 million shares of Facebook stock; they are now worth $1.4 billion. In 2011, she was paid $300, 000 plus $30 million in Facebook shares.
The Business Week writer quoted above attributes positive qualities to Sandberg because she is female, but it seems to me that Sandberg is acting with all the greed and self-interest of so many powerful men who have come before her.
To be fair, Sandberg has to stay at Facebook till 2022 to be fully vested in those $1.4 billion worth of shares. Here is a prediction that I will bet anyone a fancy dinner comes true: Sandberg will leave the company well before that, but stay on the board, and Facebook will count that position as continued full-time employment.
As long as she does what Zuckerberg wants.
Oh, and finally: Sandberg is already on a bunch of corporate boards: Walt Disney, a board which has been criticized by numerous investor groups for awarding excessive pay to CEO Bob Iger (Sandberg earns $466, 341 annually for attending those meetings; Starbucks ($280k a year for that one), the Brookings Institution, Women for Women International, V-Day, and the Ad Council. Either she spends a lot of time doing this stuff, which is problematic, or she spends relatively little time doing this stuff, which is also problematic.
My wife asked me the other day why I’m so tough on Sandberg. The answer’s simple. It’s not because I have anything against women in corporate life, or that I don’t like Sandberg because she’s female. It’s that I don’t automatically admire her because of her gender. I don’t really care that she’s a woman. (In my opinion, feminists should consider this a compliment.) Certainly it bothers me that the media en masse abandons its critical judgment just because of Sandberg’s sex.
And because of Sandberg’s gender being a non-issue for me, I can see some issues in her rise to power that the mainstream media completely overlooks, because, well, isn’t she swell?
Sheryl Sandberg will go into politics someday; I wouldn’t be surprised if she ran for President one day. So isn’t it worth pointing out that the narrative she has crafted, and into which the media has so completely bought, isn’t the only way to evaluate her career?