In the beginning, Sheryl Sandberg’s vision for the world was clear and simple. As she closed her now-famous 2010 TED Talk on the subject of women’s leadership, she said what she wanted was a world in which women ran 50 percent of companies and 50 percent of countries. “I want my daughter to have the choice to not just exceed,” Sandberg said, “but to be liked for her accomplishments.”
For a few years, Lean In—the life and career philosophy Sandberg would go on to detail in a 2013 book—seemed poised to help women push through their own personal glass ceilings on the corporate ladder. It burnished Sandberg’s own progressive reputation, one that paired well with the one she was brandishing for Facebook, known as it was as a magnet for whiz kids and a force for connection and difference-bridging.
Now Sandberg is leaving Facebook after a 14-year tenure, most of which she spent as its second-most-famous executive. And yet her own record there may be the most powerful indictment of Lean In’s tenets (and there were plenty already). It took a pandemic and a prolonged political crisis to show what her critics had said from the beginning: a feminism singly focused on putting women in power through their own self-efficacy will neither change the gendered balance of power nor make the world a more just and equal place.
Sandberg became Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s chief operating officer in 2008, when the founder was just 23 years old. Facebook was a young company, already a sensation yet mostly known for connecting college students. And its mission was still wrapped in the auspices of providing a unique social good, a mechanism for human connection enabled by technological advancement and the big vision of its founder. But it needed to make money. As Zuckerberg said announcing the hire, “Sheryl understands Facebook’s goal of connecting everyone in the world and is passionate about building a business that will enable us to realize this mission.”
At the time, Facebook had about 500 employees and 100 million users. Barack Obama was on the verge of winning the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton and set to begin campaigning against Republican John McCain on a message of hope and change. And the Great Recession was just a few months away.
A former McKinsey consultant and Google executive, and an acolyte of Harvard economist Larry Summers who worked for him at both the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury, Sandberg was an ideal partner in Zuckerberg’s technocratic liberal dream. In a 2020 Business Insider retrospective on how Facebook managed not just to stay in business but to grow massively during the economic crisis, Sandberg credits the company’s success to her redo of its targeted advertisement business, both the products and pricing.
Not only did Sandberg have a penchant for problem-solving, necessary for the new challenge of monetizing human connection, but as a rare woman in a male-dominated industry, and one with legitimate public-sector experience, Sandberg also gave Facebook a stamp of progressivism among its social media peers. As Facebook grew under her leadership, Sandberg burst onto the wider public scene with that 2010 TED Talk on the problem of women’s leadership, laying out the basic tenets of Lean In. The 2013 book elucidating her ideas was a cultural blockbuster, and a nonprofit that organizes women into mentorship circles to help them put her lessons into practice.
In the TED Talk, Sandberg positioned herself as a champion of women far beyond the headquarters of Facebook and even the tech world, citing the problem of the lower numbers of women leaders worldwide, from corporate America to the nonprofit sector and international parliaments. Yet her advice fell largely to individual women to change the status quo: “What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell women that work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?”
Sandberg focused on three messages in particular: “Sit at the table,” by which she seemed to mean women should not self-select out of positions of power but should do their best to insert themselves into the center of big decision-making at work; find an equal partner who will support you at work and at home; and “don’t leave until you leave,” she said. “Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take a break for a child,” though she didn’t mention that one-fourth of U.S. women won’t even be able to leave work for more than two weeks after giving birth.
Sandberg’s place of privilege was obvious, but her advice was actionable, and—for a particular subset of women on the verge of promotions to management that might mean both a boost in personal meaning and a measure of security and comfort to offer her family—it appeared to be sound. The seriousness with which Sandberg’s advice was taken was bolstered by her meteoric rise in the tech world in her 30s. She embodied the proof that women could achieve their wildest dreams if they worked hard and diligently enough over the course of their careers. She was sitting at the table of what was becoming the most influential tech company in the world, had seemingly found an equal and supportive partner in her husband David Goldberg (a fellow tech executive who would die suddenly in 2015), and had not left until she needed to leave, having two young children at the seeming apex of her career. For a time, Sandberg’s success at Facebook and her feminist thought leadership mutually reinforced one another.
Sandberg encountered her share of feminist critics, from the left to the center, who pushed back against the limits of her philosophy for change. They noted that the meat of many of Sandberg’s best pieces of advice amount to additional pressures on women of color and poor women already struggling to get by balancing their care duties and need for income. In a 2013 review of the book Lean In, the Black feminist scholar bell hooks called attention to a deeper problem: Sandberg’s own admitted deep ambivalence about the project of feminism. Sandberg, hooks argues, sidesteps every serious question contemporary feminism is confronting—the problem of money and wealth, racism, how to forge real solidarity between women forced to compete in patriarchal workplaces—in order to convince us of the potential for change through leaning in: “It is precisely her avoidance of the difficult questions (like how will patriarchal thinking change) that empowers her optimism and the overall enthusiastic spirit she exudes. Her optimism is so affably intense, it encourages readers to bypass the difficulties involved in challenging and changing patriarchy so that a just moral and ethical foundation for gender equality would become the norm.” Hooks then attributes the media attention Lean In received as much to Sandberg’s charisma as to corporate America’s commitment to a nonthreatening feminism that asks little of women beyond their own careers and nothing of men and society as a whole.
To some extent, Sandberg seems to have heard her critics. In more recent years, Sandberg has spoken out in support of some family-supportive policies, like a federal paid family and medical leave law, which evidence shows has boosted women’s workplace advancement and labor force participation internationally. And her Lean In nonprofit has produced research exploring the specific barriers women of color face at work, showing, at the very least, that Sandberg’s philosophy can evolve with the times.
But her overtures toward progressive politics have been overshadowed by the fruits of her work at Facebook, which rebranded itself as the Meta in 2021, following years of controversy and criticism. Her highly profitable ad business became an agile and precise tool for targeting disinformation at the people most likely to accept it without question. It was Sandberg who took the blame for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which up to 87 million users had their data inappropriately swiped and sold to a firm hired by the Trump campaign. The Trump years saw Facebook’s news feed devolve into a veritable cesspool of misinformation, on anything from election integrity to COVID vaccines.
Perhaps worst of all for Sandberg’s feminist cred was the leak of internal documents by former Meta employee Frances Haugen showing Sandberg and Zuckerberg led a lax response to open use of its technology by human traffickers, as well as in response to evidence of the damaging impact of Instagram on young women. In each controversy, Sandberg played the role of apologist for the company, assuring the public improvements would come, only to take a defensive and sometimes outright aggressive posture each time a new scandal arose. This role was by then familiar to the public. As the New York Times reported in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica fallout: “Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.” Sandberg reportedly oversaw those efforts.
Despite Meta’s tumbling stock prices over the past year—in part because changes to the iPhone have made Facebook’s ad targeting less precise—Sandberg’s capabilities as a businesswoman don’t appear to have come into doubt. But that’s just the problem with Lean In feminism. It treats a woman’s ascent to power as an objective good, regardless of what it is she’s doing with that power.
In a world in which millions of women are scrambling to balance a livable income with mothering and a growing commitment to elder care, what Sandberg has offered women as a path forward has shown its relevance in the circles of middle-class women who are turning to leadership coaches, Lean In groups, and a rise in consultancies and executive networks of women who achieved success “in business” helping other women fight their way to the same. Other women are, meanwhile, seeking their own version of a livable life by organizing record-high union drives and labor actions to improve their wages; and others, by organizing protests against skyrocketing gun and police violence, to ensure their own and their children’s best hope of having a life to live at all.
On the aggregate, it’s clear a feminism maxed out at Lean In politics could not move the needle toward a more gender-equal world, in the face of a pandemic that thrust caregivers and working families on the front lines to make it all work, as they mourned a million dead and had an expanded social safety net pulled out from under them after the first signs of inflation. During the pandemic, this has meant women struggling to show up for and keep their jobs, as schools have closed and stable child care has become a luxury for the elite. Who can possibly muster the energy to lean in under these conditions? That leaning in has become a lifeline for some women does not change that it is also a feminism of technocrats poised to advise us not on how to achieve greater economic security, but on how to achieve power, without the barest of human infrastructures to back us or to hold us accountable for our actions.
One imagines that if somehow none of any of this had happened in the 14 years since Sandberg took the helm at Facebook, we might really, truly like her—for the role she played in seeding public conversation about persistent gender inequality, for her simple rubric for changing culture and thus, some economic outcomes, for the loyal, if narrow, subset of women she helped, and for the way she evolved and grew bolder on the ideas she first put her name to as a corporate leader helping other corporate women.
In the end, it isn’t her success that history will judge most harshly but the particular nature of her accomplishments. And after all, as one of Sandberg’s peers put it in the Financial Times: “Facebook would not be Facebook, without Sheryl.”