Female role models in the corporate realm? Might as well search for a needle in a haystack … on the dark side of the moon. After all, only some five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs currently are women, and their ranks are diminishing, not growing. But we did have—in the boys’ club of tech, no less—Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
In her blockbuster book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she sought to inspire us to “have it all” by asserting our belief in our abilities without losing sight of our integrity. Sandberg had brains and heart, killer confidence, and a true conscience. She gave us something we could feel—and perhaps point out as a north star to our daughters.
No more, no way, no how. Now, as Sandberg proves to be more lie down than lean in, she’s like the exec equivalent of tainted romaine lettuce. And as her less-than-savory saga continues to unfold, NextTribe can’t help but wonder what her fall from grace says about the decline of women in the C-suites she urged us to lay claim to.
A Quick Recap, An Ongoing Uproar
Sandberg arrived at Facebook a decade ago as chief operating officer and, considered by many to be the adult in the room (which founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not appear to be), helped rocket the social media company to unprecedented, stratospheric success. Though shares were in a bit of a slump this year, the company was worth some $140 billion and claimed more than 2.23 billion monthly active users in 2018.
What does her fall from grace say about the decline of women in the C-suites she urged us to lay claim to?
Then came that nasty business about Russian trolls using Facebook to manipulate the 2016 US elections and shady organizations pillaging millions of users’ information. Facebook came under fire—and Sandberg took the heat. Why it was her job to do so is a bit anomalous; if we recall the crash of 2008, fingers were pointed at big bank CEOs, not COOs. But Facebook is an unusual company, and while Sandberg might simply be a convenient scapegoat, she did (when push came to shove) take responsibility for some unfortunate decisions and actions.
First came the New York Times article exposing the COO’s attempt to minimize what the public and investigators knew about Russian interference and delay regulation of the company; it included how she reportedly screamed (shrilly implied) at Facebook security chief Alex Stamos for being forthright about the then-still-uncontained mess to Facebook’s board of directors. She also sought to suppress criticism—and lied about it: Though she initially denied knowledge of opposition research (aka, dirt digging) on philanthropist George Soros, one of Facebook’s harshest detractors, she was ultimately forced to admit that she had personally ordered it.
A Feminist Unfriending?
It’s been open season on Sandberg ever since. Lambasting her in a Times opinion piece, Jennifer Senior decried tactics that didn’t jibe with “the moral and transparent style of leadership Sandberg had been peddling in Lean In,” (noting that the book sold more than four million copies).
Virginia Hefferman, who’d attended an early promotion event for Lean In, wrote on the Wired website: “Sandberg’s credible moral superiority; her pose as a billionaire basic; and her obsession with eucalyptus-scented lifestyle questions had made me wonder, as far back as 2013, about the leadership at Facebook,” while calling the honcho “a small, vain, bright, self-absorbed, convivial everywoman with a talent for money and fame.”
As chief operating officer, Sandberg was considered by many to be the ‘adult in the room.’
Coming at Sandberg from another flank, the Times ran a piece about Lean In, the women’s empowerment group Sandberg launched, distancing itself from its founder. “It’s become less and less about Sheryl with every passing year,” LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas said. Reader reaction bristled. “Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, deserves to be shelved next to Donald J. Trump’s The Art of the Deal,” read one comment on the article.
And what about Michelle Obama? In hyping Becoming, the former first lady’s new memoir, she renounced Sandberg’s doctrine as snake oil in front of a crowd of 19,000: “That whole ‘So you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Pedestals, Potential, Performance—and Progress
There’s nothing wrong with calling out the hypocrisy of people who deign to dispense counsel, especially if we feel betrayed. And it’s possible that Sandberg snickered fiendishly, having suckered so many gullible women into buying her bunch of hooey. But it’s more likely that she bought into the idealistic lean in philosophy, too, and then in practice did what she thought she had to do. Plus, it’s probably safe to say that Sandberg—simply because she is a woman, or, more to the point, a feminist icon—is probably receiving much more criticism than a man in the same position would.
Trouble is, jumping on the Sandberg-bashing bandwagon will not improve the situation of women in the business world. “Sheryl Sandberg was up on a very high pedestal—and perhaps she put herself there, having made herself so visible,” says Rosalind Barnett, PhD, a research psychologist and author (with Caryl Rivers) of The New Soft War on Women. “But when a man makes a mistake and falls off a pedestal, he’s able to brush himself off and get a second chance. When a woman falls off the pedestal, she’s done.”
‘It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time,’ Michelle Obama said.
Barnett says this is because men are perceived as having potential, so they’re given the opportunity to try again. Women are judged on performance—and one bad performance can mean no second act. But that’s hardly the only reason why women are underrepresented in the corporate arena at Sandberg’s lofty level. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, last year 32 women were running Fortune 500 firms; in 2018, the number had dwindled to 24.
Barnett’s research has shown that, early in their careers, women must prove their competence, but later it’s more about cultural fit—whether a woman is seen as really “getting” the values, vision, symbols, language, habits, et cetera of her company. “It’s about the comfort level, the hangout factor,” says Barnett. “That’s very subjective criteria and it makes moving up very difficult for women.” American corporate culture carries a reputation of having a bottom-line-by-all-means-necessary ethos. Could Sandberg’s abhorrent behavior have sprung from the same kind of popularity contest we dealt with in high school?
Goodbye to All That
If so, it’s no wonder women are starting their own businesses at more than twice the rate of men, according to the US Census. “The dismal rate of progress of women up to the C-suite is a key factor driving ambitious women to look elsewhere,” says Barnett. “Because of new, alternate funding opportunities—crowdsourcing, for example—we don’t have to go the traditional route and apply for a bank loan. Women are successfully finding seed money for their ventures.”
Could Sandberg’s abhorrent behavior have sprung from the same kind of popularity contest we dealt with in high school?
That’s positive—yet not every smart, capable woman wants to be an entrepreneur. For those still maneuvering through the corporate structure (not to mention the generation coming up), changes must be made. Fortunately, there’s been headway. To date, 93 companies have taken the Paradigm for Parity pledge, a five-point action plan designed to help accelerate the pace of gender parity in corporate America. Points include eliminating unconscious gender bias; making advancement a matter of results, not workplace presence (i.e., flex time, not face time) and establishing sponsorships for women, not merely mentorships.
“Mentoring is giving advice; sponsoring is having someone root for you, recommend you, be the person in the organization that will tell the decision maker that you can do the job — which is something every top male CEO has had,” says Jewelle Bickford, a partner at Evercore Wealth Management and a co-founder of Paradigm for Parity. “It’s not that women don’t have the ability, enthusiasm and desire to lead corporations, it’s that the environments aren’t always conducive to them staying on the path. We are working to make it more comfortable for women to climb the ladder.”
Sheryl Sandberg made that climb. When she got to the top, she espoused an honorable approach to leadership, then proved she could be as calculating, ruthless and mendacious as the culture may have demanded—certainly as calculating, ruthless, and mendacious as any man. Perhaps when her daughter reaches the first rung, she won’t feel compelled to be.
A native Brooklynite, Nina Malkin has written for everyone from hoity-toity fashion magazines to trashy tabloids to The New York Times. She’s the author of six books, including the paranormal romance novel Swoon and the memoir An Unlikely Cat Lady: Feral Adventures in the Backyard Jungle.
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