Facebook dismissed my concerns because I am ‘not nice’

Executives decline to engage on gender pay gap and sexism issues raised by shareholders.

For the third year in a row, I spoke up at Facebook’s meticulously orchestrated shareholder meeting, which was held late last month.

My firm, Arjuna Capital, has been leading a long-term campaign to press 20 of the largest US companies, including nine leading US tech firms, to address the gender pay gap.

We have $250m under management and we are engaging with Facebook in partnership with much larger investors, including the New York and Illinois state pension funds. Other companies take our concerns seriously and have spoken to me at length.

Facebook is the only one that has not. In fact, of the dozens of companies I have dealt with over a decade of promoting sustainable investment, Facebook is the first to give me the cold shoulder. While we spoke in 2016 and 2017, this year, despite requests to discuss our agenda, the company waited until the day before the AGM to even call.

So I took the opportunity at the meeting to express investor concerns not only about the company’s gender pay gap, but also its failure to address the problems of fake news, the prevalence of hate speech and sexism on its platforms and efforts to interfere with elections. During the question and answer session, I asked why the company was failing to respond to its investors.

Top executives, including founder Mark Zuckerberg, declined to respond to my public comments, but I was asked to speak privately to Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice-president of communications, after the meeting.

He told me that the company was not engaging with me because I’m “not nice”.

Facebook already has a history of dismissing the views of its independent shareholders. Its complex share structure gives Mr Zuckerberg 53 per cent of the votes, even though he only owns 14 per cent of the company.

Nearly two-thirds of independent shareholders have voted to change that arrangement every year for the past four, but Mr Zuckerberg has used his power to shoot the proposals down. This year James McRitchie, a shareholder backing a shift to simple majority voting rules, told the meeting that Facebook risked becoming a “corporate dictatorship”.

But even with that backdrop, I was stunned by Mr Schrage’s words to me at the meeting. Not nice? This from a company whose chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, led a campaign to empower women to speak up by banning the word bossy?

I cannot imagine a scenario where a male company executive ignores a male institutional investor with such an excuse. Corporate executives say many things to and about Bill Ackman or Carl Icahn, but “not nice” or “be sweet” are probably not among them. It is true that Arjuna is smaller than the capital they control, but New York state alone manages $200bn.

If that is Facebook’s response to a female investor asking clear, forceful, respectful and effective questions, why didn’t Mr Schrage, who was sitting on stage at the AGM, say it publicly?

Could it be that some in the audience would interpret his response as patronising and sexist?

And the irony of it. I was dismissed in a sexist way for trying to call Facebook out on problems that are specifically related to gender: the gap between the average male and female wage and the fact that the social network allows women to be intimidated and harassed online — even though such behaviour violates the company’s own terms of service.

Other women at the AGM were also silenced, although I cannot be sure it was based on gender. The first woman to speak did so out of turn, and was escorted out of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, a lone woman remained at the microphone to ask a final question, completely unacknowledged and ignored.

Perhaps the failure to respond to us was more about Mr Zuckerberg being a control freak. The whole gathering felt like it was subject to an occupying force, with employees wearing blue T-shirts positioned every four feet to keep things in order.

Facebook has faced scandal after scandal yet completely ignores calls for better corporate governance. I do not care if the company does not “like” me. I am an investor, not their Facebook friend. They can and should do better.

The writer is managing partner at Arjuna Capital Facebook declined the opportunity to respond to Ms Lamb’s piece.

This was published by the Financial Times.

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