There's More to the Sandberg Publicist 'Cat Fight' Than Meets the Eye


After Dissent magazine published a rather lengthy and critical review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In by Kate Losse earlier this week, Losse received a private message on Facebook from Brandee Barker, one of the publicists for the book/movement, telling her, “There’s a special place in hell for you.” Losse took a screen capture of the message and tweeted it out, adding, “Maybe sending Hellfire and Damnation messages is part of the Lean In PR strategy. LEAN IN OR ELSE YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.” Losse sees it as an inappropriate response to her criticism of the book. Perhaps. But there seems to be way more to the story, especially considering that Losse worked closely with both Barker and Sandberg during her five-year run as an employee of Facebook—before she left to write a damning tell-all about the social media company.

Losse’s review wasn’t just a critique of Lean In but of capitalism and startup culture and Facebook itself, which she claims is the true voice behind the book, and the movement is really just a conspiracy to co-opt feminism:

It is well-known that Facebook clones small apps and rolls them out to Facebook’s broad user base when an outside app becomes threatening to Facebook’s business model. Given that strategy, it’s not hard to see how Facebook may want to incubate its own feminist movement in order to prevent a more activist and transformative feminism from affecting Facebook’s business. Just as with any of Facebook’s competitive moves, the need to create an in-house version of a product arises due to an external threat. And put very simply, feminism is a threat to Facebook, just as Instagram or Snapchat were threats to Facebook’s photo-sharing business.

It’s an interesting take, and one that would be particularly attractive to those in the tech world who 1) are tired of Facebook’s dominance; and 2) haven’t read Sandberg’s book. But it also robs Sandberg of any agency in its implication that she’s just some tool of the patriarchy’s grander, Mr. Burns-esque scheme to cash in on the women’s movement. Like Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in a high-backed leather chair, rhythmically tapping his fingers together, thinking of all the money he’s going to make from feminism, of all things. The theory that a feminist manifesto about empowering women was masterminded by male executives is not so much a criticism of Lean In as it is an insult to women’s ambitions, as well as to Sandberg and what she’s achieved.

That said, the review is hardly out of line. It’s written with a reasonable tone, even if I don’t agree with it.

According to our RSS feed, Losse’s review went live at 10 am. About a half hour later she tweeted a link to it, saying, “Shots fired.” Twelve minutes later she received the private message from Barker—a former Facebook exec who now runs her own PR firm—about her “special place in hell,” which apparently is always in reference to women who don’t support other women, because that’s what Katie Couric told Taylor Swift. (It’s actually a widely-used idiom, and just the other day I was thinking about how there’s a special place in hell for people who re-tweet compliments.)

If Barker was truly just upset with Losse for writing a negative but thoughtful review of Lean In, then why wasn’t she shooting off nasty messages to all the other people who wrote negative pieces (for much larger publications) about Sandberg’s book? Probably because this time, it wasn’t about Sandberg or Lean In. It was probably personal. This is, after all, not the first time that Losse “fired shots” at the company.

Last summer Losse published a tell-all about her time at Facebook that some have described as “cheap, gossipy, Facebook criticism” that reads as a publisher’s attempt to cash in on an ex-employee’s bitter feelings toward a high-profile company.

It wasn’t the best PR move for Barker to reach out to Losse the way she did, especially since Losse’s tweets regarding this entire incident seemed designed to attract attention — which they certainly did — to what seems to be yet another go at grinding that Facebook ax, this time disguised as a book review. Especially because Barker should be well aware that Losse would be willing to tell tales out of school for her own personal gain. Barker’s no victim here, but her lack of self-control gave Losse the perfect opportunity to create a cat fight, which the media loves. And as a result of all that attention Losse garnered, you’re now aware of a book review that you might have otherwise never known existed.

But here’s the thing: Losse’s biggest beef with Lean In—that “it teaches women more about how to serve their companies than it teaches companies about how to be fairer places for women to work”—doesn’t ring true.

Sandberg opens the book with an anecdote of when she was at Google while pregnant with her first child and experiencing debilitating nausea that made her late for work, forcing her to park in the last available spot furthest from the office. Having to waddle that distance to the building made her even later for an important meeting. Being in a senior position, she was able to enact a policy that granted reserved parking spaces for pregnant employees. The story illustrated her point that having more women in leadership roles is the best way to ensure that these types of policies—that make corporate environments “fairer places for women to work”—could be introduced, since men will never be pregnant and thus won’t likely understand the difficulties that pregnancy can present to working women.

It’s not that Sandberg’s book is above critique—it’s just that Losse’s didn’t seem to be an honest one.

Sheryl Sandberg’s PR Honcho Leans Into Critical Ex-Facebooker With Nasty Message [New York]
Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning in? [Dissent]
So Is the New Facebook Tell-All Just Trashy Gossip?
Sheryl Sandberg on Why It’s OK to Cry at Work

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