Facebook employee no.51 Katherine Losse’s memoir about her time at the startup, which she joined in 2005, makes the company sound like a pretty miserable place to work in those days – especially for a woman.
According to Losse’s account, Facebook was overrun with fratty Ivy League elites who were by turns distant with or crude to the few women that worked among them.
The problem started at the top, according to Losse’s account.
Consider this anecdote about how Mark Zuckerberg brought up a sexual harassment complaint during an all employee meeting.
Mark was too busy programming to get to the part of a liberal arts education where you study social inequality…When a female employee reported being told by a male coworker in the lunch line that her backside looked tasty – ‘I want to put my teeth in your arse,’ was what the coworker said – Mark asked at an All Hands (it was hard to tell whether it was with faux or genuine naiveteé), ‘What does that even mean?’ I went to Mark at the open office hour he kept after the meeting and told him that it was unacceptable to blow off sexual harassment in the office. He listened to me, which I appreciated, but understanding of the crux of the matter; that is, that women by virtue of our low rank and small numbers were already in a vulnerable situation in th office, did not seem to register.
If you’re a particularly close watcher of Facebook the company, you might recognise Losse’s book jacket photo.
That’s because three years ago, Gawker posted a series of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook photos and Losse was in one of the strangest shots in the bunch.
The one at the bottom of this post.
In the memoir, Losse talks about how seeing that photo for the first strike brought Facebook’s strange gender dynamics home to her.
Here’s the story of its taking. It starts in a Tahoe house that Facebook rented for employees to use during the winter of 2006.
As the night proceeded and we became steadily more drunk, we played mp3s on someone’s iPod louder and louder, screaming the lyrics to Green Day and Sublime so loudly that we were essentially doing karaoke, the singers’ voices were drowned out. Sensing that this moment called for more entertainment, I donned the bearskin, complete with head, ta ht adorned the banister on the stairs leading to Mark’s and [Facebook cofounder] Dustin [Moskovitz]’s rooms. Mark thought this was hilarious and insisted that I continue to wear the bearskin around my shoulders. Luke, who built the wildly successful Facebook Photos product that had launched months before, naturally took pictures all night of our shenanigans to post to Facebook in an album he titled “Opening Night,” so the rest of the company could see how much fun we were having.
In one of the last photos Luke took, Mark is gesturing at me haughtily like an emperor as I stand doubled over in laughter with the bear suit draped over me. I twas all innocent fun; everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, but when I saw the photograph appear in a Facebook album on Monday I was struck by the loaded nature of the image, ripe for interpretation, in which Mark appeared to be commanding an employee, female, to submit. If I were his PR person, I thought, I would tell Luke to take it down. Whether to protect the company, or Mark, or myself, I wasn’t sure. IN this take-no-prisoners company, where you were either willing to devote your whole young life to it or not, it was starting to be hard to tell the difference. I felt certain that some gossip writer was going to find the photo and post it an article about Facebook someday. In fact, the photograph appeared in Gawker four [sic] years later.
Perhaps more interesting than the fact that the photo was taken and posted on Facebook is that it didn’t occur to anyone in the office that there was anything wrong with it, or that the picture revealed something about the culture of Facebook that it shouldn’t.
There are a lot more awkward, charged-with-gender-inequality moments described in Losse’s book – including the strange way Zuckerberg introduced his new COO, Sheryl Sandberg, in 2008.
It’s hard to draw many conclusions about Facebook based on these accounts – there are, after all stories from just one person.
But one thing is clear, especially in light of the sexual harassment lawsuit that’s tearing in to Kleiner Perkins right now: Facebook’s investors and Mark Zuckerberg himself may be very lucky something bad didn’t happen during the startups early days – something like a lawsuit, warranted or unwarranted – and that Zuckerberg and his company seem to have grown up and matured quite a bit.
Here’s the picture in question: