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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 04/02/2013

Will a ‘Facebook phone’ help women ‘lean in’?


Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, speaks on December 2, 2011 in New York City. (Spencer Platt - GETTY IMAGES)

“Lean In” author and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has many reasons to smile.

First of all, her book is experiencing buzz other authors dream about. Also, women are, by far, the heaviest users of social networking sites online and the gender gap between male and female users of smart phones is almost negligible. The rumored “Facebook phone,”which reportedly will be unveiled on Thursday could help to further narrow the gap between men and women in the tech industry and create new opportunities for women to “lean in.” Unlike other much-hyped phone launches in Silicon Valley, this launch will likely focus more on the user interface and user experience and less on the hardware — and that may make all the difference.

By creating "a new home on Android" Facebook is very likely hoping to become the default option for smartphone users to experience the Internet. If initial rumors are to be believed, instead of using an app to check your Facebook updates the same way you check your e-mail, the Facebook experience will be there as soon as you turn on your phone. If you check the weather, use turn-by-turn directions or get news online (the three most popular mobile activities other than social networking, according to Pew Internet) — it will be easier than ever to seamlessly connect your Facebook Social Graph. Again, that’s if rumors are to be believed.

Even if you don’t buy into the argument that men and women use the Internet differently, it’s hard not to see how this change in user experience will help women more than men. A phone that funnels everything through one’s social graph may play to women’s growing strengths in the digital world: social networking and mobile use. That, in turn, could be good news for both their personal and professional lives. According to Sandberg, the key to keeping employees engaged in the workplace and helping them succeed is by helping them discover their strengths. A ”Facebook phone” that helps women do more of what they’re already good at would be welcome news for women in business who are looking for ways to “lean in.”

Compare Facebook’s approach of focusing on the user experience with the typical "shrink it and pink it" approach to designing for women. The conventional wisdom until recently was that, if you want women to buy gadgets, you needed to offer them in “feminine” colors and in sizes small enough that they become fashion accessories. As a result, the past few years have seen some truly dreadful examples of how tech companies have attempted to appeal to women by offering products like the pink laptop. It’s a safe bet that most women trying to “lean in” don’t want to be pitched laptops in pink, or be told that the core use of their laptops will be checking recipes, watching cooking videos and counting calories online. When they’re in board meetings, they probably don’t want to pull out a pink or brown Fujitsu Floral Kiss (with pre-installed horoscope app) when everyone else has a laptop in silver, white or black.

We still have a long way to go before women are recognized more for being a rocket scientist than for cooking a great plate of beef stroganoff and following their husband from job to job, but it’s clear that the tech industry is starting to change in subtle ways. We may not have the numbers of female executives that Sheryl Sandberg may wish to see, but we are starting to see a maturation in the way we think about designing technology for women. The “Facebook Phone,” while not specifically pitched to women, may end up leveling the playing field more than products that were thought to be specifically designed for them.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

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By  |  11:59 AM ET, 04/02/2013

 
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