Sheryl Sandberg recently made the news by announcing she was leaving Facebook for personal reasons at the age of 52. Sandberg had been the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook for 14 years, steering it from fledgling start-up to social media giant. Meta, as the company is now known, owns 94 companies, including Facebook along with Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus VR. She was known as Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenant.
Nine years ago, she wrote Lean In, urging women to take their place in the corporate world. When her first husband passed away she wrote and spoke extensively about dealing with grief. At the time she was credited with not only being the flag-bearer for smashing glass ceilings, she was hailed for bringing emotional context into a hard-nosed corporate world. In 2013 the book triggered all the right conversations.
However, since then her halo has waned. The Lean In conversation left out women of colour and older women by failing to see that racism and ageism add another complex layer to the obstacles faced by women – because they are often impeded not by men but by other women. By not being inclusive and tackling the deeper issues at hand, Lean In began to sound increasingly tone deaf. More so, during Covid-19, when working mothers found themselves isolated. In 2022, Lean In appears sadly outdated.
Professionally, Sandberg took Facebook from strength to strength. But the race to profitability and market dominance came at a cost. Questions about privacy and data went unanswered. There was growing unease about the ‘Big Brother’ element that went hand in hand with Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica scandal brought it to a head. Allegedly Zuckerberg blamed her for it. And author Soshana Zuboff branded her as the 'Typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism'.
Sandberg then became known for deflecting and denying and in doing so she was often criticised for defending her own reputation above the company’s. Questions about Russian-backed trolls and Facebook’s role in the January 6 storming of the Capitol remained unanswered. Maria Ressa, the Nobel Prize-winning investigative journalist in the Philippines attempted to alert Facebook about the harassment tactics adopted by President Duterte - to no avail. In a Congressional hearing, Zuckerberg awkwardly admitted to fake news leaving Sandberg to smooth it over. Research showed that teen girls were being negatively affected by Instagram and disinformation was thriving on the sites, but Sandberg continued to deflect these issues. She later stated that Facebook was not given enough credit for propelling #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter to the forefront.
To be fair, while she was the driving force behind taking Facebook forward, Zuckenberg was the controlling shareholder, the face of the company and the decision maker. But as his most trusted lieutenant she took the hits, not he. While she is no doubt responsible for the missteps made by the company, he must be held equally accountable. There is news that Meta is investigating Sandberg for allegedly using company resources for personal gain. Among these allegations is that she used Facebook to pressure the Daily Mail to drop a damaging story on an ex-boyfriend. Her exit does not promise to be a quiet one.
Sandberg says she has no plans for the future and is stepping back to focus on bringing up her children and her philanthropic work. For working mothers, this doesn’t send out the best of signals. Perhaps you can’t have it all? How painfully ironic that the champion of leaning in is now leaning out. In doing so, she joins an increasing number of women in their fifties leaving successful careers because they are burnt out or simply unwilling to side-step the sexism, ageism, stress and more. Or, is she perhaps taking account of the last decade and course-correcting? Maybe she realised that ‘leaning in’ into someone else’s space wasn’t the answer and that making your own space is? At 52, with bountiful resources at her disposal that go beyond mere wealth, she has the ability to do so.
Now that would make for a riveting next chapter.
Rashna Abdi is CEO, Vitamin C. firstname.lastname@example.org