Silicon Valley Feminism: “You Need to Change, Not Us”

The media attention to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has been extraordinary. Two reviews should not be missed. First, from Kate Losse, a former Facebook insider (employee #51) who felt exploited by the company:

[Why does Lean In focus] on the problem it does: women’s presumed resistance to their careers rather than companies’ resistance to equal pay[?] Why not focus on renovating the pay structure so that women aren’t denied raises[?] . . . The faster my career accelerated at Facebook, the more my financial returns diminished, until my workload was being elevated but not my salary or equity. Leaning in, then, starts to look like it can benefit companies more than it benefits workers. . . Women in tech are much more likely to be hired in support functions where they are paid a bare minimum, given tiny equity grants compared to engineers and executives, and given raises on the order of fifty cents an hour rather than thousands of dollars. . . . [W]hat if women, even in a company like Facebook, are still paying a gender penalty that nothing but conscious, structural transformation can cure?

I came up against such a penalty in my career at Facebook, which spanned from customer support to international product management to Zuckerberg’s writer: in late 2008, after working my way up from the support team to product management in the engineering sector, I was promoted to a more demanding managerial position. But there would be no raise. “You’ve already doubled your salary in a year and it wouldn’t be fair to the engineers who haven’t had that raise” (never mind that a year earlier engineers had been earning anywhere from $70,000 to $140,000, as opposed to $38,000 like I had). Far from being equitable, the concept of fairness was being deployed to explain why I needed to work for less so men wouldn’t feel resentful, as if my rapid career rise posed a threat to them, which it didn’t. At Facebook of all places, there was plenty of money and career growth to go around. If this kind of salary containment was happening to women there, I can only imagine what justifications are used in less cash-flush companies to level women’s salaries downward.

Joanna Biggs sharpens the point, noting what Sandberg’s prescriptions for the self elide as a matter of policy:

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.

And finally, some of the larger context from Sarah Leonard:

Cutting edge technologies, instead of being designed to make the grunt work of life easier, are merely commodifying increasingly intimate parts of our existence. Technology hasn’t been oriented toward letting us sleep eight hours and still make a living, but has served to make an inhumane work ethic look progressive, innovative, feminist. Silicon Valley culture and the cult of the CEO encourage the belief that everyone’s realm of empowerment is in the unsleeping pursuit of success. . . .

With the help of Losse, Biggs, and Leonard, we can better discern what the Lean In campaign is about: less the extension of a helping hand to those left out by traditional corporate power structures, than a subtle inculcation of a “work ethic” designed to further enrich the insiders at their apex.

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