In 2003, Elizabeth Holmes, the white, blonde, black turtleneck-wearing “wunderkind” founded Theranos, a tech startup that claimed it was going to reinvent blood testing and “disrupt” the way lab work is done.
Instead, the photogenic Holmes allegedly perpetrated a $6 billion fraud, lied about the technology, staged demonstrations with machines that didn’t work and pulled fire alarms to stop reporters from catching her. For now, she has gotten away with a $500,000 fine. One reason Holmes got away with this alleged massive fraud is by trading on a vast set of assumptions about people who look like her. She looks like a nice white lady, and nice white ladies, thanks to racism and sexism, are assumed to be inherently innocent and good. But nice white ladies ― even the ones who aren’t fraudulent ― are not going to save the tech industry.
Yet, there is no end in sight to the magazine features on women in tech who are “redefining the future,” because the mere presence of women in tech is heralded as transformative. A recent piece described how three “billion dollar women,” CEOs of companies valued at $1 billion or more, are “changing the face of Silicon Valley.” All three billion dollar women are white or white-passing. There is a whole nonprofit sector devoted to the idea that getting more women and girls involved in tech will help solve the many things that are wrong with a male-dominated industry that, ironically enough, wouldn’t exist without the inventions of women. But simply having a few more white (and white-passing) women in leading roles will not change the tech industry one iota.
Simply having a few more white and white-passing women in leading roles will not change the tech industry one iota.
There is perhaps no better example of this than the Sheryl Sandberg, the nice white lady billionaire who is Facebook’s chief operating officer and currently on a media tour to soften the company’s image.
In the fallout from the company’s latest data breach disaster, some have called for Sandberg to take over as the head of Facebook, and such a move would certainly be on brand for her. Sandberg has famously encouraged young women to “lean in” to the corporate world in order to succeed, and she seems to embody this philosophy of corporate feminism for white women.
Even before she published Lean In, Sandberg was tasked by those outside the industry with transforming it. In 2011, a New Yorker profile asked, “Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture?” It’s quite a charge to transform an entire industry, but Sandberg invites it. In Lean In, Sandberg’s message is that women limit themselves and that if we can just get out of our own way and “lean in” – by which she means assert ourselves in male-dominated offices and boardrooms ― then the entire “power structure of the world” will be changed and this will “expand opportunities for all.” But as bell hooks has observed, Sandberg’s version of “for all” is one that only includes white women who want to succeed at capitalism.
On the recent five-year anniversary of the publication of Lean In, Sandberg said that she “will not rest until women run half the world’s countries and companies.” If Sandberg’s own record in the tech world is any indication, achieving that goal won’t do much to change Silicon Valley; it will mean more of the same damage wreaked by the white tech bros, and the tiny handful of nice white ladies, who already run the tech world. While it might be too much to expect a token woman to make a significant difference, Sandberg has held herself out as an exemplar for other women, so it’s worth taking a close look at what she’s done.
Before she came to Facebook in 2008, Sandberg worked at Google, where she developed the company’s lucrative advertising programs, AdWords and AdSense. When she arrived at Facebook, the platform had captured lots of attention but hadn’t been as successful at converting that into revenue. The New York Times reported at the time that “Ms. Sandberg will help Facebook expand overseas and develop an advertising network that will help justify its carbonated $15 billion valuation.” In this expansive job description, Sandberg was also supposed to “oversee Facebook’s marketing, human resources and privacy departments — essentially guiding how Facebook presents itself and its intentions to the outside world.”
The recent data crisis at the social media behemoth is a breach of trust, and part of Sandberg’s job is to leverage her persona to sell the idea that Facebook is trustworthy. And make no mistake, it is in part her nice white lady-ness that sells that trust. Observers note just how doggone nice Sandberg is, as in the recent Vanity Fair recent profile of her. In it, the author gushes that Sandberg is the personification of “grit, intelligence, charm and — imagine this —class.”
Part of Sandberg’s job is to sell the idea that Facebook is trustworthy. And make no mistake, it is in part her nice white lady-ness that sells that trust.
That same profile praises Sandberg for defending her mentor because, in this author’s view, “there are things, apparently, that are more important than politics or causes or the opportunity to jump on someone else’s ham-handedness. There is loyalty, patience, forgiveness — a generosity of spirit that’s all but vanished.” As you’ll recall, the mentor is Larry Summers, who resigned as president of Harvard University because of his sexist comments about women’s lack of scientific ability. One of the chief functions of nice white ladies is to be loyal to their powerful white male benefactors and thereby blunt the hard edges of their misogyny. It’s the same way Ivanka Trump smooths lush velvet damask over the brutal corners of her father’s politics.
As much as Zuckerberg touts the origin story of his dorm room creation, Sandberg has reshaped the platform. And she doesn’t get enough blame for making Facebook the social media network we all wish we could delete.
At Facebook, Sandberg has used her experience at Google to pioneer an advertising model that has come under fire for its reliance on user data. Sandberg helped to develop a Facebook ad model that relied on “engagement ads” that invited users to “like” the page of an advertiser and interact with the brand. These didn’t really work, as it turned out, but something else did. According to Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook product manager, it was turning Facebook data into money through “just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience.”
Later, Sandberg led the development of an advertising model that allowed external advertisers to merge the data they had about individuals with Facebook’s data to target consumers, and more controversially, for political campaigns to target voters.
The reality is that Sandberg buys into the same underlying ethos of Silicon Valley that other industry leaders do.
The reality is that Sandberg buys into the same underlying ethos of Silicon Valley that other industry leaders do. One writer described this ethos as a “contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism,” the philosophy that technology can fix everything and that the only evil is government regulation. The way this ethos has been put into practice is through surveillance capitalism, in which companies make money from our personal data beyond the reach of government regulation. The Facebook twist on this ethos has been that everything done in the name of “community” and “bringing people together” is the end that justifies whatever means they need to make a profit. But the basic ethos is the same.
Of course, the male-dominated tech industry is largely a “Brotopia” where women and people of color struggle to gain a foothold. Silicon Valley diversity reports from tech companies feature beautiful, smiling brown people, but conceal the hard truths about who actually works there. Of 23 major tech companies surveyed about who they hire, none had achieved gender parity and most of the ethnic diversity was represented by Asian staff, with Latinx and African-American workers well below 10 percent at most companies. And, because these numbers are reported for gender or race, but rarely both, there is little sense of how many (or, realistically, how few) women of color work in Silicon Valley, and how much of what counts as diversity there is hiring white women. As with almost any industry in the U.S., the higher up you go in tech, the whiter and more male it gets: the boards of directors in Silicon Valley are as white and male as a yacht club. The white, male dominance is not only harmful to women, it’s also bad for the industry because it creates a monoculture echo chamber.
Within that culture are the few nice white ladies like Sandberg, the “billion dollar women” ― and, until recently, Elizabeth Holmes. We shouldn’t expect that those women will change the culture, values or economic model of the tech industry. They are there to succeed at surveillance capitalism, not upend it. Sandberg helped build Google and Facebook. A thousand more nice white ladies like her will not save the tech industry. They will only expand its empire.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book, Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.