Sandberg and Zuckerberg’s differing responses to Tim Cook’s criticism epitomizes sexism at work

Respectfully leaning in.
Respectfully leaning in.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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In case you’ve been living in a hole, Facebook is in a bit of a pickle.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is dramatic and confusing, and it’s not going away. How a shady data firm collected the personal information of as many as 87 million Facebook users, without their permission, and used it to target potential Trump voters during the 2016 US presidential election, is not crystal clear. Far fuzzier is how much Facebook knew—and presently knows—about the depths of this breach.

Notable names across the tech industry have slammed Facebook for not doing a better job of protecting its users. Speaking in March with Recode’s Kara Swisher and MSBNC’s Chris Hayes, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested that Facebook’s privacy policies were beyond the help of self-regulation. “I think the best regulation is no regulation, is self-regulation… However, I think we’re beyond that here,” he said.

Swisher asked Cook what would he do, if he were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His answer? “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Zuckerberg’s response to Cook

On April 2, Zuckerberg said Cook’s comments about Facebook’s inability to self-regulate—and Cook’s argument that if consumers aren’t paying, then Facebook doesn’t care about them—were “extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth,” in a Vox interview with Ezra Klein.

“At Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use,” Zuckerberg continued. “I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people. To the contrary, I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.”

Shots fired.

Sandberg’s response to Cook

In an appearance yesterday (May 30) at a Recode conference in southern California, Sandberg was asked for her response to Cook’s criticism of Facebook’s ability to protect consumer data. In sharp contrast to Zuckerberg, Sandberg gently stated that Facebook “respectfully disagrees” with the Apple CEO’s critique.

Why this matters

There’s nothing wrong with what Sandberg said. Some might say she sounded meek, while others might have seen her statement as reserved or calculated. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, seems to have concealed nothing in his response to Cook’s criticism.

On the surface, extrapolating the difference into a gender-based analysis seems like overkill. If Sandberg, once again, found herself in the role of providing parental supervision to her boss, and offering a humanizing balance to Zuckerberg’s cool-mannered stoicism throughout the scandal, who’s to say that the difference in her reaction to Cook was rooted in her being a woman, and not in her simply wanting to take the high road and maintain diplomacy?

But to overlook the nuance of this situation as it relates to workplace gender dynamics would be a missed opportunity, because it so clearly epitomizes how we, as a society, perpetrate unfair and unequal expectations of the sexes.

Over time, the media narrative of Sandberg has painted her to be assertive and straightforward, at least behind closed doors. Her frankness is encapsulated in an oft-cited anecdote in which she told one of her employees, straight-up, that she sounds stupid when she says “um” during important presentations. (That employee was Kim Scott, who was so inspired by this experience that she went on to write Radical Candor, a bestselling management text about the importance of honest feedback.)

But if Sandberg is so blunt in private, why would she cushion her criticism of Cook in public?

Because she has to—and because even if she wanted to sound as strident as Zuckerberg was, she couldn’t without risking being called bitter, or a bitch.

Who’s the emotional one now?

The issue is not that Sandberg should have been angrier, or that being publicly brash makes you a good executive, or powerful communicator. It doesn’t. The issue is that while Zuckerberg’s visible frustration gets written off as intense or intimidating at best, and childish at worst, Sandberg doesn’t have the option to be visibly frustrated without having her intelligence or her capabilities smeared.

The same standard applies to all women at work, precisely because we’re socialized to distrust angry women. (Consider that men have always been able to chalk up their aggression to testosterone, while it took a global uproar against sexual assault and harassment to even begin the normalization of female rage.) For female executives like Sandberg, the stakes are only higher; given that so few women rise to the top, once you’re there, any slip-up will be interpreted as evidence that not only you, but women in general, don’t really deserve a seat at the table.

Even as children, women learn that this risk simply isn’t worth it. In one famous study, groups of toddlers were given a toy pickle to play with. The boys fought and shoved until one person won—at which point the fighting ended, and play resumed. While girls, too, wanted the toy for themselves, they employed indirect rhetoric and negotiation to get it, saying things like, “Maybe we should share the pickle? I could use it for a while, then you could use it later.”

“Already as toddlers, the idea that girls should take others’ feelings and desires into consideration before speaking or acting has formed,” Susan Herring, a linguist specializing in gender, previously told Quartz. “And for boys, conflict isn’t just okay, it’s encouraged.”

This is why men are more more likely to make declarative statements (using words like “always,” “definitely,” and “obviously”) to bolster their assertiveness, while women often use hedges (words like “perhaps,” “might,” and “I think”) to soften statements into suggestions.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s response to Cook’s criticism are the pickle experiment on steroids. Zuckerberg uses boosters like “extremely” and “ridiculous” to drum up his status, aware, whether consciously or not, that he won’t face retribution for being so declarative. Meanwhile, Sandberg—a Silicon Valley leader in her own right, as well as a best-selling author, and champion of equal pay—”respectfully” hedges her critique, her politeness evidencing professionalism, to be sure, but also a deep-rooted lack of privilege.