I teach middle school and have posted a sign on my classroom wall that reads: Real Life Wonder Women. Beneath it I have posters of female role models, some you probably would recognize, others maybe not. For those of you who know my work, this probably isn’t much of a surprise; I believe our duty to empower women doesn’t start in college, or even high school, but from the time a girl can read and comprehend social media.
I have a poster of Shalane Flannagan, Des Linden and Kara Goucher (OK, I’m a running enthusiast and coach). And also pics of the faces you’d probably recognize: Joan of Arc, Emelia Earhart, and Rosa Parks.
I also had a poster of Sheryl Sandberg, which isn’t hard to find on the walls of many middle schools. Let’s face it, she wrote the book on female empowerment. Sandberg’s book, Lean In, is considered to be a feminist manifesto and makes her the most important spokesperson in the fight for equality in the workplace. As the COO of Facebook, Sheryl is one of the most powerful women in the business of social networking,
But, I have to admit, it’s getting hard to keep her poster on my wall.
Sheryl is undeniably a powerful force in the business of social networking, and therein lies the problem; many young people (and adults, too) don’t understand that social networking isn’t just a platform of free ideas. It’s a business, a business that harnesses more influence than our government. Sheryl can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, or spin a spiders web, but as we have painfully witnessed the last two years, her actions influenced a presidential election. She also helped spread disinformation about institutions and people who don’t see Facebook as all that good for young people. She’s acknowledged some of these transgressions, but like many ambitious people, she’s refused to take any responsibility for them.
There’s a lesson I need to teach my students: Whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ll never achieve equality without being ambitious, but ambition can lead you to do some pretty bad things. I have to teach my students that to Sheryl we aren’t customers. We are products; that is, every aspect of our documented lives; from birthday parties to sleepovers; from pics of our first bestie to our favorite pizza– are commodities, mere data-sets that Facebook sells to the highest bidder.
Does that make Sheryl Sandberg a bad person? Not really. I doubt given the bias against ambitious women in the workplace she would’ve gotten anywhere without taking great risks, but it’s tough to read a book about women, work and the will to lead without acknowledging that lying is a genderless topic that shouldn’t be rewarded.
I hope in this new year, Sheryl can explain to us how important privacy is to young people. But most of all, I hope she can tell my students this simple lesson: with absolute power comes greed and corruption–whether you’re a man or a woman.