Sheryl Sandberg Handled Harassment at Facebook Like a Corporate NinjaS

Though sexism in Silicon Valley might no long come as a great shock to anyone, the early years of Facebook were especially fratty, if not outright hostile towards female employees. That is, Facebook was like that, until Sheryl Sandberg arrived with her ninja stars in 2008 and quietly changed the company's boy club culture.

On Saturday, an except from Katherine Losse's Facebook memoir The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, which details some of her ickier encounters with Facebook's frathouse culture, appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Losse joined Facebook in 2005 as a member of its brand-new customer-relations team, and immediately sensed that the company was more like a basement full of computer nerds who'd stayed up all night programming and drinking Full Throttle than an actual corporate office where mature human beings have learned how to behave civilly towards one another. Though most of the episodes Losse recounts only insinuate a deeper current of harassment during Facebook's earlier years, some of her male co-workers went so far as to obliquely challenge her and her precious few female colleagues to complain about the brovironment that Facebook had created. Describing an encounter with an engineer about an office mural that featured the sort of hyper-sexualized, cartoonish women you might find in a video game or comic book, Losse explains that she was tested early on about how "good a sport" she'd be about the prevailing office culture:

It seemed juvenile, but I wasn't very bothered-[the murals] seemed like the kind of thing that suburban boys from Harvard would think was urban and cool. "We had to move the really graphic painting to the men's bathroom because someone complained," an engineer told me as he gave me a tour of the tiny office. He said this with the slight mocking disapproval that was my new colleagues' default tone in response to anything that resisted their power.

I got it: If you couldn't handle the graffiti, or the unrepentantly boyish company culture that it represented, the job wasn't going to work out.

Losse also describes a corporate party at Tahoe, during which a colleague snapped a photo that made it seem as if Losse was bowing before an imperially gesticulating Mark Zuckerberg. The picture — which, according to Losse, suggested that women at Facebook must "submit" to their male colleagues — seemed to sum up Facebook's early inability to outgrow its sexist, juvenile default setting. It wasn't until Sheryl Sandberg arrived in 2008 to help imbue Facebook with a little more legitimacy that the company's culture started to change. Losse says that Sandberg took an early interest in women at Facebook and, in a one-on-one meeting, Losse told Sandberg about a few situations involving senior managers who propositioned female employees for threesomes, and about one engineer in particular who behaved aggressively towards female product managers. Losse's pre-Sandberg attempts to address that engineer's conduct, though, had gone unheeded by the engineering director, who told her that, by not confronting the offending engineer herself, she was somehow a "bad feminist."

After the meeting, Losse writes that she didn't hear anything else about her complaint until Sandberg came to her months later and explained in the manner of a mafia assassin that the engineer situation had been "taken care of."

I didn't hear back immediately about any of the issues I had raised with her, until she stopped briefly by my desk one day a few months later and in the low, succinct office voice that she mastered, said, "I just want you to know that the situations you told me about have both been handled."

I had heard nothing about it. "You see, I'm so good that I make things happen and no one even knows about them," she said with a smile. Sure enough, the manager who propositioned employees had been subtly demoted and the aggressive engineer moved to another team.

Moral of the story: Sheryl Sandberg is totally a ninja, and seems more and more like a big reason behind Facebook's transformation from the brotastic startup glorified by Aaron Sorkin into the legitimate company that Wall Street investors use to play some inscrutable game of stock price canasta.

The Woman in the Facebook Frat House [WSJ]