Facebook's Complicated Lady Problems

This article is from the archive of our partner .

An excerpt from a new book about Facebook in the Wall Street Journal is shedding more light on how the company got rid of some of the ickier aspects of how women were treated after hiring Sheryl Sandberg. 

Katherine Losse joined Facebook's customer relations department in 2005 when there was only 50 people working for the company, and she was one of only two women. In the excerpt from her new book The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, Losse explains how the corporate culture changed in 2008 when they hired Sheryl Sandberg. She describes some of the problems she had before Sandberg's hiring in an account of a one-on-one meeting with Sandberg to talk about how women were treated in the work place: 

I told her that there were a few situations involving men in the department that I thought she should know about. For example, one of the senior managers had been known to proposition women in the company for threesomes. I also had an issue with an engineer who behaved, by turns, dismissively or aggressively toward female product managers. As I said to Sheryl about this second situation, "I was told by an engineering director to go in and talk to the guy and try to resolve the situation myself, but when I did that, the engineer somehow twisted things around and called me a bad feminist, as if to distract from the conversation at hand, and the conversation didn't go anywhere. It was pretty unpleasant."

At the time of the meeting, there were about 15 women working for Facebook out of hundreds of employees. A few weeks later, Sandberg told Losse she solved all the problems they talked about. The threesome-proposing manager was "subtly" demoted, and the passive-aggressive engineer was moved to a different team. 

As Daily Intel's Andre Tartar points out, a lot of the problems stemmed from the frat-like behaviour Facebook adopted around the office in the early days. When Losse was first hired, the art in the office didn't make it a very inviting atmosphere for a female employee:

Much of the graffiti in the room featured stylized women bursting from small tops that tapered down to tiny waists, mimicking the proportions of female videogame characters. It seemed juvenile, but I wasn't very bothered—it 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.

In another part, Losse describes how she felt uneasy after a picture of Mark Zuckerberg "gesturing at me haughtily like an emperor" while she was draped in a full bear skin at a company retreat in Tahoe was posted to Facebook the morning after the party. "Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, but when I saw the photograph appear in a Facebook album that Monday I was struck by the loaded nature of the image, ripe for interpretation, in which Mark appeared to be commanding a female employee to submit," she writes. 

Recommended Reading

While the company has clearly grown since Losse's time with the company (she left in 2010), these stories further the reputation of the early days of Facebook as basically a frat house for coders and engineers. Sandberg's hiring clearly altered the way people behaved around the office, and they're now a public company worth billions of dollars, but there's always going to be an interest in stories of what it was like at Facebook while it was still in its infancy. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.