Who Are the Anonymous Sexists in Sheryl Sandberg’s New Book?

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Photo: null/Corbis and Istockphoto

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new memoir/feminist manifesto, Lean In, is already destined to be the kind of book that everyone you know has read — the kind that is piled twenty-high on airport bookstore shelves and found on every subway car in New York.

Sandberg's book is full of juicy anecdotes about her life in business, some of which involve insensitive, callous people who stood in her way during her rise to the top of the tech world. Generously, she gives most of these cads anonymity, refusing to name and shame the vast majority of the tools, doubters, and skeptics who said inappropriate things to her during her career.

Sandberg may be too polite to offer her tormenters up for a public shaming, but we're not. So, let's play a blind-item guessing game!

For example, which out-of-touch private-equity firm could Sandberg be describing here?

Two years after I joined Facebook as chief operating officer, our chief financial officer departed suddenly, and I had to step in to complete a funding round. Since I had spent my career in operations, not finance, the process of raising capital was new and a bit scary. My team and I flew to New York for the initial pitch to private equity firms ... I turned to the senior partner and asked where the women’s restroom was. He stared at me blankly. My question had completely stumped him. I asked, “How long have you been in this office?” And he said, “One year.” “Am I the only woman to have pitched a deal here in an entire year?” “I think so,” he said, adding, “or maybe you’re the only one who had to use the bathroom.”

And who could this charming "guest of honor" be?

Not long ago, at a small dinner with other business executives, the guest of honor spoke the entire time without taking a breath. This meant that the only way to ask a question or make an observation was to interrupt. Three or four men jumped in, and the guest politely answered their questions before resuming his lecture. At one point, I tried to add something to the conversation and he barked, “Let me finish! You people are not good at listening!” Eventually, a few more men interjected and he allowed it. Then the only other female executive at the dinner decided to speak up— and he did it again! He chastised her for interrupting. After the meal, one of the male CEOs pulled me aside to say that he had noticed that only the women had been silenced. He told me he empathized, because as a Hispanic, he has been treated like this many times.

Here's an easy one. Sandberg writes that when she first came to Facebook in 2008, she didn't get the respect she thought she deserved from the tech press corps:

[A] local blog devoted some serious pixels to trashing me. They posted a picture of me and superimposed a gun into my hand. They wrote “liar” in big red letters across my face. Anonymous sources labeled me “two-faced” and “about to ruin Facebook forever.” I cried. I lost some sleep. I worried that my career was over. Then I told myself it didn’t matter.

Luckily, thanks to Google, we're able to verify that the "local blog" in question was Valleywag, and that the post in question (which no longer has the gun photoshop) can be found here. [Update: the gun photoshop is still online, but attached to a different post.]

Perhaps the rawest bit of sexism in Sandberg's book actually has a name attached to it: It's that of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who had a nasty run-in with Sandberg early in her budding political career:

In between my junior and senior years of high school, I worked as a page in Washington, D.C., for my hometown congressman, William Lehman ... In the hall outside the House floor, he pulled me over to meet Speaker O’Neill. I was nervous, but Congressman Lehman put me at ease by introducing me in the nicest way possible, telling the Speaker that I had worked hard all summer. The Speaker looked at me, then reached over and patted my head. He turned to the congressman and remarked, “She’s pretty.” Then he turned his attention back to me and asked just one question: “Are you a pom-pom girl?”

Sandberg's gender-related setbacks in government didn't end with Tip O'Neill — but her naming-names experiment did. So we're left to guess who, for example, these boneheaded Treasury staffers are:

When I was named the Treasury Department’s chief of staff in 1999, several people remarked to me, “It must have helped that you were a woman.” It was infuriating.

There is also a former Treasury colleague of Sandberg's who wasn't exactly convinced she was a feminist-icon-in-the-making:

One of my colleagues from Treasury called to say that “others”— not him, of course— were wondering why I gave more speeches on women’s issues than on Facebook. I had been at the company for two and a half years and given countless speeches on rebuilding marketing around the social graph and exactly one speech on gender. Someone else asked me, “So is this your thing now?”

To be fair to Sandberg, her book isn't meant as a tell-all. (These examples are basically all there is of that kind of story.) Her book is about rising above simple score-settling and inspiring women to lead and negotiate for what they want.

Still, we'd be curious to know who some of the anonymous people who inspired Sandberg to Lean In are. If any of the anecdotes above rings a bell for you, by all means, get in touch.