Sheryl Sandberg has faced more than her share of attacks for stepping outside the bounds of what is considered feminine. It would be difficult to effectively run an organization like Facebook without stepping outside these bounds. Now, a new book once again calls her out for behavior that would likely go unnoticed if it came from a male leader.
Facebook’s leadership is examined in An Ugly Truth by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The authors point out that Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, legitimately shoulder ultimate responsibility for the social media site’s many problems. But they also point out some criticisms of Sandberg that likely would have gone unnoticed if carried out by Zuckerberg or other male execs at Facebook.
It’s easy to attack female leaders for any behavior that falls outside gender norms. Common gender stereotypes suggest that women should be warm, kind, nurturing and polite and suggest men should be stronger and more aggressive. Often female senior executives like Sandberg do not fit the feminine stereotypes, making them prone to criticism. These leaders tend to be ambitious, confident, opinionated, speak their mind and sometimes they even get angry. Because this behavior is inconsistent with the common notions of how women should behave, it becomes more noticeable and memorable. As a result, women face a double standard and behaviors like yelling that would go unnoticed from a male exec become a bigger deal when performed by a woman.
In the book, Sandberg is compared to Typhoid Mary, labeled a distraction, called arrogant, and criticized for being overprepared in her testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. One Facebook employee criticized Sandberg’s confidence saying she believes, “there is no person she can’t charm or convince.” She was also oddly criticized by another Facebook employee for not befriending all the female employees at Facebook, but only those that went to the gym and blew dry their hair. It seems unlikely anyone would apply these criticisms to a man, but other female leaders will likely relate.
Perhaps shockingly, it was also revealed that Sandberg yelled—more than once. She even made employees cry one time. One survey found that 60% of employees reported they had seen their boss get angry in the last year alone, so why is it newsworthy that Sandberg yelled at an employee twice in her 13 years at Facebook? Because she’s a woman, and women are not supposed to yell.
Interestingly, Kang and Frenkel describe several other senior executives (all male) in the book, but there were no anecdotes of these execs yelling at an employee. It’s unlikely that these male execs never raised their voices to their employees. Instead, it’s more likely that their angry outbursts were unmemorable and therefore went unreported. It doesn’t seem that unusual for a man to express his anger.
This relationship between men and anger is so ingrained in our psyche that children as young as five years old already associate anger with men. In one study, researchers showed photos of men and women with different facial expressions to children and adults. Both the children and adults were more likely to mistakenly categorize an angry face as a man when it was actually a woman. The participants also took more time to categorize angry female faces. It just takes our brain longer to interpret and process an angry woman. It’s this extra processing that also explains why people are more likely to remember a female leader expressing anger.
Clearly, shouting at employees is not the optimal communication strategy at work for anyone. The problem with calling attention to this behavior for women, and not men, is that female leaders are penalized for these behaviors more than their male counterparts. Research indicates that when female leaders express anger their effectiveness ratings take a hit. This doesn’t happen when men express anger at work.
In fact, any type of assertiveness from female leaders is more likely to be noted and interpreted negatively. Female leaders who adopt a direct or assertive style are rated more negatively than men who do the same. Unfortunately, this puts women in a double bind because women often need to be direct and assertive to reach the top levels of management in organizations.
Ironically, Sandberg is well aware of the double standards in evaluations of female leaders and has been active in trying to change the words we use to describe our youngest female leaders. While assertive boys are called leaders, assertive girls are branded bossy. Sandberg helped launch the “ban bossy” campaign to draw attention to the different words we use to describe these children in order to encourage more young girls to pursue leadership roles.
As with the young girls, the words we choose to describe our female leaders are important. It’s not that Sandberg shouldn’t face criticism. Facebook has been involved in some significant problems in the past several years that had a serious impact. Russian groups promoted misinformation on the site, doctored videos of Nancy Pelosi were spread on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica obtained some users’ information, and Trump posted misinformation about the 2020 election on the site. The book authors fairly point out Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s missteps that potentially made these situations worse. However, it should be these business decisions that we use to evaluate our leaders, not attributes tied to their gender.
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