Sheryl Sandberg’s Complicated Legacy

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Lizzie O’Leary: Just a quick heads up before we get started. There is some adult language in today’s episode. All right. Here’s the show. I just introduce yourself. Tell me who you are and what you do.

Sheera FRENKEL: My name is Sheera FRENKEL, and I am a tech reporter at The New York Times and the co-author of the book An Ugly Truth.

Lizzie O’Leary: Shearer’s book, which she co-wrote with her colleague Cecilia Kang, is an incredible look inside Facebook at both the company and the people who made it, including Sheryl Sandberg. I actually want to start with a moment from your book, which I have in front of me, and it is from the 2019 Vanity Fair new establishment summit or conference or whatever it’s called. And you and your author, Cecilia Kang, describe the scene where Sheryl Sandberg is being interviewed by Katie Couric.

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Speaker 3: Hope everyone had a great lunch. And Sheryl, thank you for being here. We have a lot to talk about, as you know. So let’s get right to it.

Lizzie O’Leary: And it’s really clear that Sandberg thinks this is going to be a chatty, friendly, like here we all are. Interview. Do you remember writing about this?

Sheera FRENKEL: I remember vividly, yes.

Lizzie O’Leary: So Katie Couric asks her.

Sheera FRENKEL: Since you are so associated with Facebook, how worried are you about your personal legacy as a result of your association with this company?

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Lizzie O’Leary: What a question. Right. Do you remember what you said?

Sheera FRENKEL: Well, I want to say, the thing that I love about that moment is that Sandberg doesn’t see it coming. Katie Couric is a mom like Sandberg. She is a woman who has lost her husband like Sandberg. And Sandberg sees her as this ally, which is why she’s even sitting in that chair making herself vulnerable to this kind of question. Right. And, you know, the book doesn’t quite capture it, but but the look on Sandberg’s face when that question comes is like a moment of shock and of betrayal and of like, oh, this question from this person, this woman that is so much like me and should really just email a target audience for my message about feminism and women in the workplace is asking me this question, and Sandberg answers. She says, You know, Well, I’m so proud of everything I’ve done at Facebook. We’ve done such great work and you have to remember all the good we’ve done.

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Speaker 3: But I feel more committed and energized than ever because I want to fight to preserve the good. Because I met a woman not so long ago who for her birthday raised $4,000 for a domestic violence shelter that she volunteers at. And crying, she told me I saved two women from domestic abuse. I never could have done that before. Facebook.

Sheera FRENKEL: And she kind of filibusters her answer with the things we’ve always heard from Sandberg, which is why focus on the negative when we can focus on all the positive things I’ve done at the company.

Lizzie O’Leary: As Mark Zuckerberg’s chief deputy and the company’s CEO, Sheryl Sandberg, was the person making Facebook tick for years. Still, she never wanted her name to be synonymous with the company, but untying all those knots might be impossible.

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Sheera FRENKEL: She has wanted to be known as Sheryl Sandberg, the multifaceted individual, the adventure of women, the, you know, the on the frontier of feminism. She’s been wanting wanted to be known for so many things for so long that I imagine that in the future we will see her try and disentangle. And the question is whether she can bring herself to acknowledge the things she got wrong at Facebook and the things she missed and the things she didn’t do. Right. And to really hold space for that, which until now we haven’t seen her really able to do in a public forum.

Lizzie O’Leary: Today on the show, a Sandberg leaves Facebook after 14 years. We’re going to try to answer Katie Couric’s question. What is Sheryl Sandberg’s legacy at Facebook in Silicon Valley and for working women in America? I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around.

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Lizzie O’Leary: When Sheryl Sandberg came to Facebook. Now, Metta, she was 38. George W Bush was president. iPhones were only a year old. It was 2008. And Facebook was far from the global institution it is now.

Sheera FRENKEL: So she comes in and everyone calls her the adult in the room, which I now take a little bit of umbrage at, because she was only 38 years old, which is, you know, younger than I am now. But she’s an adult. She’s considered an adult because everyone else at the company is in their early twenties. There is an acknowledged kind of frat boy culture. They really love making things their product, guys. They’re really psyched about all the people that are joining their company, but they haven’t figured out how to really monetize that and they haven’t figured out the business side and what Mark Zuckerberg kind of considers all the boring stuff of policy and politics and Washington and making money and keeping advertisers happy. He doesn’t want to deal with it. So she kind of comes in and Marc goes, Well, you handle all that boring adult stuff. I want to make cool shit. I want to make products and you can handle making money. And she does that and is incredibly successful at it.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Yeah, she grew the revenue from what, 272 million in 2008 to 118 billion in 2021. That’s an astonishing leap.

Sheera FRENKEL: Right. But what she also did was take on this entire portfolio of their relationship with Washington, their relationship with regulators, the politicking. And then, of course, comes out with this book, Lean In, which is all about advancing women in the workforce and how she, Sheryl Sandberg, is going to take this on on her portfolio. And it’s not all that other stuff that we’re now sitting here saying, well, she was really good at making money for Facebook, but was she really good at all the other stuff that she took on?

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Lizzie O’Leary: How did she change Facebook as a business? Because I feel like we should acknowledge she kind of set the standard for how the Internet works now.

Sheera FRENKEL: Absolutely, she did. I mean, she took a business model that Google had pioneered. She would hate it if I put it this way. But it is basically selling their data to advertisers. It’s giving advertisers access to that data to target you with incredibly specific ads. So if they know that you are interested in vacations in Lake Tahoe, they can sell you a pair of skis and a really warm pair of winter underwear. That is a really profitable way for advertisers to reach people. She comes to Facebook and she goes, Wow, I thought things were good at Google. You guys have such specific data and you have social net graphs where I can say, Hey, look at this. Lizzie is about to go on vacation with two friends to Hawaii. Let’s sell all three of them bathing suits. So she looks at Facebook social graph, and she goes, Man, we can do all this on steroids. We can really rake in the advertising money. And she does. And advertisers love her to this day.

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Lizzie O’Leary: This also seems to be where the seed of so many of the problems comes in. Did you realize that this kind of hyper specific targeting that came with making Facebook at total advertising powerhouse would hurt people’s privacy.

Sheera FRENKEL: If she did, she didn’t talk about it. The privacy argument was not something that came into play really until I’d say 2016. It wasn’t until people started to get worried about the way that political, you know, funders and politicians in their campaigns were going to use these targeted ads. They started to worry about privacy. Barack Obama was the first. He used Facebook to collect data on people who signed up to like his page. They collected all your information and all your friends information and then targeted you with ads trying to get you to vote Obama. But it doesn’t seem to have bothered people when Obama did it. It was only when the Trump campaign did it that people started to kind of freak out and then ask this question of, Oh, God, what kind of data has Facebook given the Trump campaign that has allowed them to target us in this hyper specific way?

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Lizzie O’Leary: Perhaps because she signed up to be the adult in the room, or because she was the one who had to clean things up. Sandberg became the face of so many of these scandals, whether it was Russian disinformation or how millions of people’s data was collected by the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. For years, Facebook was loosey goosey about how third party apps could handle sensitive user data. They didn’t check to make sure the data was deleted. What is the.

Sheera FRENKEL: Reason it took so long? You you.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Could have done all of this.

Sheera FRENKEL: Two and a half years ago.

Speaker 3: You were right that we could have done this two and a half years ago.

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Sheera FRENKEL: Why didn’t you?

Speaker 3: Because. Because, as I explained, we thought that the data had been deleted and we should have checked. You are right about that. What we’re doing now. We thought it had been deleted because they gave us assurances.

Sheera FRENKEL: Yeah. Arguably, Mark Zuckerberg was the one that made the mistake. It was his side of the company that really made some of these mistakes that led to problems in the 2016 elections and certainly to Cambridge Analytica. But I think that Sandberg had kind of put herself out there as the face of Facebook for a very long time, whether it was international conferences or appearances before Congress.

Speaker 3: Chairman Burr, Vice Chairman Warner and members of the Select Committee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. My written testimony goes into more detail about the actions we’re taking to prevent election interference on Facebook.

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Sheera FRENKEL: She wanted to be the one that was doing the interfacing with the public and with the media. And so people knew her as the face of Facebook. And it’s interesting that at this time when Facebook starts getting bad headlines, she doesn’t say, oh, you know what, Mark? This was your mistake on this one. Instead, she goes, Yeah, I’ll be your loyal foot soldier, and I’ll march out there and I’ll be in front of the firing squad. Even though Cambridge Analytica was a product mistake, which completely happened under Mark’s watch.

Lizzie O’Leary: Eventually Zuckerberg did have to put his face on these scandals in front of Congress and the world. But by then, Sandberg’s name had also become intertwined with the company’s problems. It’s very difficult, I think, to to sort of. Tease these things out and interrogate them as reporters, but also wonder like, what are the threads of sexism here? If you came in to be the adult in the room? It does sort of sound like a school Marmee title. It does sort of sound like a kindergarten teacher who is supposed to pick up after the boys broke things. And I wonder if it’s fair that so many of these scandals took the bloom off of the the public. Sheryl Sandberg ROSE.

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Sheera FRENKEL: Sheryl really put herself out there as the face of Facebook and as the face of women in the workforce and so many other things. And had she not been so public in her stance about these things and so public in her defense of Facebook, then I think it’d be different. But it is hard to look at somebody that publicly goes out and so viscerally defends Facebook and is the second most powerful person in the company. Ultimately, like she is the only one potentially that could have swayed Mark’s mind or said, Hey, I don’t support you on this. This was wrong. I’m going to go out and say we were wrong and it’s going to hold a lot of water because I’m super important here. No, right. She doesn’t do those things. And so I think it’s important to say, on the one hand, is she getting more criticism because she’s a woman or is it because she is super important as she has put herself out there, as Sheryl Sandberg, the name, the brand.

Lizzie O’Leary: Well, now we have to talk about Lean In.

Sheera FRENKEL: Yes. Yes.

Lizzie O’Leary: Sandberg’s book was a prescription for how women could get ahead at work. It was about ambition and asserting yourself. She recommended Lean in Circles, where women met to talk about trying to have it all.

Sheera FRENKEL: Her new book, Lean In, has ignited a.

Lizzie O’Leary: Firestorm as a sort of feminist manifesto.

Sheera FRENKEL: For the Sex and the City generation.

Speaker 3: Do you want to lead?

Sheera FRENKEL: Taking a hard look at the uncomfortable question. Why are there still so few women at the top?

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Lizzie O’Leary: Do you remember all of the hoopla and the magazine articles and TV profiles that that surrounded it when it came out in 2013?

Sheera FRENKEL: I remember all the hoopla because I was at the time I was a middle East reporter and the uprisings had just happened. You know, they were still happening in Syria and in Bahrain and many other places, Libya. And I remember because I was sitting in a hotel in Cairo and another reporter gave me the book and was like, Have you read this? And I just felt so disconnected from everything I was seeing. And she goes, This is white women shit.

Sheera FRENKEL: And I laughed and I read it and I thought it was really interesting. And I did think it represented things that me and my female colleagues as reporters, had talked about in terms of a glass ceiling and how far could we get. And if we wanted to have children, could we still do our jobs? But I totally understood why this colleague who happened to be black and had been living in the Middle East for many years, had called it white women shit because it also advocated for so many things that were out of reach for me as a as a non-white person, as a woman.

Lizzie O’Leary: It did center white women and white professional class women. There were a lot of people calling that out at the time, but it feels like even more glaringly obvious now. It’s a decade later. The pandemic has disproportionately burdened women and women of color. Did she ever hear that criticism? Did she take it on board?

Sheera FRENKEL: Well, we’ve talked to people who were around her when the criticism started. And I think initially it was easy to kind of blow it off and say like, oh, you know, people always want to come for you when you’re at the top and look at how many people we’ve helped. And one person recalled a conversation she had with Sheryl Sandberg about Lean in circles and how they need to be more diverse. And Sheryl started like naming people that were in Lean in circles she had attended that were Hispanic or black or normal.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Like, here’s my black friend who is there.

Sheera FRENKEL: Right? Or like, you know, one of my maid of honor was a was a black woman. I’m not a racist. It was that kind of moment. But I think really the sea change came when Michelle Obama called out Lean In as being out of touch.

Lizzie O’Leary: Obama had this to say about marriage, that whole. So you can have it all. Nope. Not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough.

Speaker 3: To lean.

Lizzie O’Leary: In because that.

Sheera FRENKEL: Doesn’t work all the time. I think that was something that Sheryl couldn’t ignore because she really admires Michelle Obama. And this is one of the most sort of public, well-respected black women in America saying this is out of touch, like this does not speak to the experiences of many black and brown women. And I do think she has since then had a moment of like, oh, does this need updating? Does this need to be thought about in a way differently than I thought about.

Lizzie O’Leary: The Clinton Foundation when I was tooling around on their website as support mechanisms now for for union trades women and, you know, some some literature about intersectionality, but I’m still struck by how much of it is focused on individuals and not on structural questions. You know, Sheryl Sandberg could be advocating for for paid family leave. Do you think she still sees. Being a woman as an individual act or is it being part of a collective?

Sheera FRENKEL: We hear feminists saying maybe we shouldn’t be focused on maternity leave. We should be focused on parental leave. And if men and women together were expected to shoulder the burden of becoming new parents, feminism would be at a very different place. I have not heard that be a type of feminism that Sheryl specifically talks about, although Facebook, as a company, I should say, has parental leave. At the same time, men at Facebook are held up and admired and valued when they answer work emails while they’re on parental leave. And I have interviewed people at the company just in the last week who have said, oh, yeah, I was on my maternity leave hours on my parental leave. And then when I came back, my boss champions the fact that even while I was on leave, I finish this project or answer this email and that culturally is still held up as a model employee, which sort of misses the point of being on leave and giving people the time and space to become parents and share the burden of becoming parents.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Back when the book came out. Sandberg used to host these sort of salon dinners at her house, and I actually attended one in 2013. And I’m not going to talk about the specifics because it was off the record, but I can say that she cultivated these spots as kind of a place for women to come together. And I wonder if you could parse out how you think she thought she was going to position herself as this incredibly high profile woman in Silicon Valley. And what has happened since. Whether she is still seen that way or whether the intervening years have done something very different for her stature in in the industry in the area.

Sheera FRENKEL: 2013 Sheryl I think I saw a map in front of her, a roadmap of how she could transition her success at Facebook and Silicon Valley into a career in Washington. 2013 Cheryl was holding salons and lodging Lean In. She was cultivating relationships with important women, and she was held up as a real champion of women’s issues. And so she could see this very direct path where she goes from being seen as this this feminist leader to having her first really significant job in Washington under a Clinton administration.

Lizzie O’Leary: A Hillary Clinton administration.

Sheera FRENKEL: I Hillary. Sorry. Yes. To be clear. A Hillary Clinton. And she was close to Hillary Clinton there, kind of really both of the same mold in a lot of ways. And you could see how how Sheryl Sandberg would have very easily filled filled in a role of the Treasury Department for administration led by Hillary Clinton. Obviously, the election didn’t go the way that Sheryl Sandberg thought it was going to go. And in the tarnishing of Facebook’s reputation and Sandberg’s reputation, she’s now in a very different place. I think she still has political aspirations, not immediate, but I think if that was something in the cards for her in the future, she would be interested because she comes from a family where public service is really held up as the most noble cause. Her parents, her siblings, they really value the idea of public service and public good. And I think she would like a chance to kind of repair her reputation and do that.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Doing that probably requires taking stock of how she did and didn’t change things for women at Facebook and more broadly in Silicon Valley.

Sheera FRENKEL: She got a conversation started that hadn’t really been happening before, and she did it in Silicon Valley, which is important because Silicon Valley is led by people who, for the most part, want to see themselves as progressive liberals and who for the most part, have employees that are progressive liberals in state California, which is highly left wing, you know, tend tending. And so if it was going to start anywhere, they sort of thought this is a great place for it to start, right? Break the glass ceiling, advance women, women in the C-suite. All these things, we can achieve it in California, not the stodgy halls of Wall Street and all those companies that Sheryl had really started at. And so people close to Sheryl would make this argument that she did break through and have a conversation about that.

Sheera FRENKEL: There is another side of that that critics of Sheryl would say, yes, there are some women, but we can count them on one hand and look at Facebook, the company that she led for so long, she’s leaving and directly underneath, Mark, are now a host of men who well, for the most part, look exactly like Mark Zuckerberg. And there aren’t very many female executives at Facebook and women at Facebook will openly talk about pay discrimination and all these other problems they face. And so she wasn’t really able to change things in a significant way at Facebook. And by and large, Silicon Valley is not doing all that much better than traditional companies in terms of the advancement of women. And so if she couldn’t have an impact here, where presumably she had some opening or some chance to have an impact. I don’t know what kind of hope the rest of us have.

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Lizzie O’Leary: And yet at the same time, I wonder if this is a truly fair question, because we could also say what impact has Mark Zuckerberg had for women in Silicon Valley? What impact or what change is Sundar Pichai making for women in Silicon Valley? We still throw it all at her feet.

Sheera FRENKEL: And I think it’s because she wrote Lean In. I think if you write a book about advancing women, people sort of expect you to advance women in your own organization. And they will say, like directly under Sheryl Sandberg, there were a number of women she advanced people like Marni Levine, who’s still at the company and who is, you know, has been a Sheryl ally for very, very many years. And so there are some women we can point to, but it’s not like you look at the C-suite at Facebook and, you know, eight or nine executives that are the most you don’t look at that and say, wow, it’s really like, you know, really equal. You do put it at her feet in a different way because she was so publicly outspoken. She took this. It wasn’t like she chose to take on global warming or she chose to take on, you know, homelessness or like she took on women in the workforce as her cause, her thing. And so we do ask more of her, I think, than we do of Sundar Pichai or Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook or any other sort of executive in Silicon Valley.

Lizzie O’Leary: What is next for her? You alluded to politics. I heard one podcast host say before all the scandals, she might have had a successful run for office. I have a hard time parsing out what that path could be. What do you think she wants to do?

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Sheera FRENKEL: Well, you know, she’s getting married, and I think she’s excited about that. She’s excited about this new chapter of her life. She certainly has the money and the power and the name to do philanthropic activities, if that’s what she wants to do. And I think that as we’ve seen in the case of many, many others, that is often a path towards redemption. I mean, people forget what what Bill Gates name was associated with when he first left Microsoft, and now he is known for the Gates Foundation. People forgot the horror show that followed him when he departed for Microsoft.

Lizzie O’Leary: Back when Gates first left Microsoft, he was thought of not as a high profile philanthropist, but an aggressive businessman whose company had been sued by the Justice Department for antitrust violations. He did not have a nice guy image. Microsoft was known as the Evil Empire, and Time magazine even called Gates a dweeb, Darth Vader.

Sheera FRENKEL: She knows that. But, you know, people like people who do nice things, right? If you go the philanthropic route, you can see a path towards, you know, more respect and once again, being celebrated by the public and then maybe a run for office. I don’t think, you know, she’s thinking about any of that in the short term. I think right now she’s just thinking about the next step and the step after that. And she is incredibly strategic and she is incredibly ambitious. So I don’t think she just fades away into like, you know, the person who used to run Facebook. I think she still tries to be to be part of the public conversation. And I think now she’s free of the constraints that she had at Facebook to to really go out and do what she wants to do and say what she wants to say.

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Lizzie O’Leary: To go back to that exchange with Katie Couric, what would it take to untangle her legacy with Facebook’s or is that impossible?

Sheera FRENKEL: Well, there’s nothing is impossible because people have a short memory. And again, I go back to Bill Gates because I wonder how many young people right now associate him with his time at Microsoft and how many associate it with his promises to cure cancer. Hmm. So people have a short memory, and she is still relatively young. You know, she has many, many years in front of her to do change associated with her name. And it could be that in ten years we’re sitting here talking about her as the, you know, former CEO of Facebook who went on to fund and the number of amazing things. So I think it’s amazing. But when you have honestly as much money as she has, you do have the potential to do amazing good in the world, if that’s what you want.

Lizzie O’Leary: Sheera FRENKEL, thank you so much.

Sheera FRENKEL: My pleasure.

Lizzie O’Leary: Sheera FRENKEL is a tech reporter for The New York Times and co-author of An Ugly Truth Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. All right. That is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for what next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of a larger what next family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. We’ll be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.