Why Facebook Needs To Lean In and Fix Its Woman Problem


When criticism started pouring in about Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto Lean In, I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have suffered so much vitriol had the Facebook COO been a man.

The answer is no. We would never expect a male to speak on behalf of all men. That would be absurd. No one told Donald Trump that his advice to "get in too late and get out too early" wasn’t applicable to single dads or that when he said "the harder you work the luckier you get" was an insult to working class men who albeit working difficult jobs won’t get the million dollar salary if they just work "harder."  

Although the criticisms levied against her are valid, it’s ridiculous for us to expect a woman to keep forever silent until she’s in a position to speak about the experience of every woman. It’s a double-standard that men aren’t held up to. I think Sandberg has done a tremendous job of making gender inequality in the workplace an issue that’s now on all our radar. For that I applaud her.

Despite my admiration for Sandberg, I’m curious as to why she’s remained completely silent on Facebook’s really obvious lady problem. Is Facebook actually anti-woman? I’m glad you asked. Let me answer that question with another question.

Does this look anti-woman to you?

Pictures courtesy of Naked Security

As Graham Cluley from Naked Security notes, this is just one of countless examples of rape-promoting material that is allowed to freely exist on Facebook. He notes that on the website's terms and conditions, it says:

"Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech." 

There’s a been a lot of talk about the site’s oddly subjective censorship policy that allows content promoting violence against women and rape, while policing pictures of women’s bodies online. Laura Bates for The Guardian notes:

"Over the past few years, women say they have been banned from the site and seen their pages removed for posting images of cupcakes iced like labia, pictures of breastfeeding mothers and photographs of women post-mastectomy."

So just to recap. Breastfeeding? Offensive. Promoting the rape of women with illegal drugs? Hilarious!

Because Facebook has been failing to protect its users from this hateful content, Trista Hendren decided to take Facebook's misogyny problem under her own hands. She created Rapebook — a watchdog group whose role was to scan and flag the website for abusive content. They reported everything from material promoting the rape of babies to content encouraging violence against pregnant women.

In the statement, Rapebook administrators explained that Facebook"s subjective policy is so biased, that it allows content promoting violence against women while deliberately removing feminist activism:

"Feminist activism is targeted for quick deletion by Facebook. Facebook will leave a picture of a woman who lies, obviously physically hurt, at the bottom of stairs, captioned 'next time don't get pregnant.' At the same time Facebook will delete a picture, taken from a news item, of a woman who displayed her breasts at a political protest and temporarily ban all the administrators of a page that displayed it."

Like any woman who dares take a stand against rape, Hendren was bombarded with rape threats. Unfortunately, there's a sad correlation between those two things. Hackers got their hands on her personal information and trolled their way into her private life calling her house repeatedly and disseminating extremely disturbing death threats (which I have seen but will not post here). For her own safety, Hendren was forced to end her courageous crusade against the type of violence that is now levelled against her personally.

Fellow PolicyMic pundit Soraya Chemaly notes that Trista's tragic tale sends a terrible message of encouragement to trolls:

"By its actions, or lack thereof, Facebook has made itself a space left more rape tolerant than rape intolerant as a result of her leaving."

Now, although I don't think it's realistic to expect Sheryl Sandberg to speak on every issue that affects women, it's disturbing that she hasn't spoken out about the blatant misogyny that takes place in her own company — especially when she said, "I really believe that when you give people authentic identity, which is what Facebook does, and you can be your real self and connect with real people online, things will change."

How are female users expected to freely express themselves in an online community that censors their vagina-shaped cupcake pictures but refuses to take down content promoting rape? More importantly, why is a woman who is profoundly dedicated to encouraging women "to stand up for themselves" not standing up for them right now?

In her book, Sandberg also asks female readers, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" I'd like to know what Trista could have accomplished if she hadn't been afraid. I'm wondering what women could accomplish if they weren't afraid. As long as companies such as Facebook continue to disproportionately silence them, I guess we'll never know.

Facebook, uphold your own terms and conditions to insure the safety of all. Join the conversation on Facebook and on Twitter using the hashtags #SupportTrista and #LeanIn and directing your Tweets to Facebook.

For more on Facebook's lady problem, follow me on Twitter: @feministabulous