The knives are out for Sheryl Sandberg. Over the past few weeks, the Facebook chief operating officer’s image seemingly transformed from super-successful corporate feminist to devious corporate hell-monster, amid reports about her botched handling of a rolling series of crises inside the company.
Executives face criticism all the time, but the coverage of Sandberg is different: vicious and unsparing. Almost gleeful. The 49-year-old isn’t getting hit simply for her strategy at the social network, or even for the way her focus on Facebook’s image has posed a serious threat to global democracy, as The New York Times’ reporting has revealed.
The tone of the attacks on Sandberg is personal. Her mistakes are portrayed as moral failings. Some of the coverage is suggestive less of professional misjudgment than religious heresy: “Inside Silicon Valley many have long known that Sheryl Sandberg isn’t a saint,” blares Vanity Fair. Fortune talks about her “fall from grace.” She’s “tainted,” a former Facebook worker tells Bloomberg.
Sandberg has sinned, betraying women everywhere, apparently. Even worse, people don’t seem to like her anymore.
She Was Likable And On Our Side ― Until She Wasn’t
It’s worth looking at why Sandberg’s the one coming in for public opprobrium. Some of it is extremely personal, but part of it absolutely has to do with her gender. The media and the public love to put a nice-looking woman up on a pedestal. And when that woman stumbles, we happily shove her down.
“Mistakes are a privilege women don’t enjoy,” said Elizabeth Stapp, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Many male executives have done or said misguided things, Stapp notes, without facing the same sort of public shaming. She offers a few recent examples: Google’s top executives haven’t been attacked personally for the recent revelations that they paid off men who had been accused of sexual harassment, while sidelining women at the company. Even though the company has tried to portray itself as progressive and supportive of women.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was slow to correct his company’s course even as Russian trolls and white nationalists have infiltrated the platform. Yet Dorsey speaks often about his purported commitment to progressive ideals.
None of these men are said to have “fallen from grace.” Indeed, the list of male CEOs and executives who have been forgiven or treated gently for a range of sins is, frankly, endless. And of course, there are so many men in the sample size. Sandberg, a rare female C-suite celebrity, was always a case study of one.
“Some have been criticized, but very few with the rapid-fire assault aimed at Sandberg,” Stapp said.
Before The New York Times reported that Sandberg had yelled at a subordinate ― “You threw us under the bus!” she reportedly told the company’s chief of security ― she’d cultivated an ultra-feminized image, always perfectly dressed, down to her high heels. Always smiling.
After she testified before a Senate committee in September, she sent out handwritten thank-you notes. So nice! Her most recent book, Option B, was an ultra-sympathetic tome about losing her husband and how to deal with grief.
It’s hard to hate on a bereaved widow.
All the personal information she put out there made Sandberg more likable and more trustworthy, said Catherine Tinsley, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “People conflated this likability and trustworthiness, thinking she has their back, and actually what she has is the corporation’s back,” she said.
Even Sandberg’s brand of feminism was nonthreatening. Her first book, Lean In ― likely the best-selling business book by a woman ever ― was predicated on the notion that women are the ones holding themselves back in the workplace.
It was a perfect message for a patriarchal world that trembles at the smallest hint of female agency. Lean In allowed the men in charge to feel like it’s not their fault women aren’t advancing.
Of course, reality is far more complicated ― particularly for women who don’t share Sandberg’s privilege. Women of color can lean in all they want ― and they do ― but it’s not going to stop racial discrimination at work. (Sandberg herself has admitted this failing, and has sponsored research into other factors holding women back.)
As former first lady Michelle Obama recently said of leaning in, “that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
She Broke Free Of The Double Bind ― For A While
It’s well-known that women face a double bind in the workplace. A man can get ahead while being a jerk, but a woman must be liked to succeed. But in order to succeed, women also need to be ambitious and confident and, sometimes, aggressive. Shrewd, you might say.
It’s a tightrope that ― until now ― Sandberg had clearly mastered.
The thing is, Sandberg’s actions at Facebook are not really defensible. Along with founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, she downplayed the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election and responded slowly and ineffectively to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Most recently, she blatantly lied and dissembled about the extent of her involvement in hiring a firm to go after George Soros ― playing into conservative and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories ― after he pointed out an obvious truth about the social network.
But Zuckerberg hasn’t faced the same level of vitriol as his second-in-command. As Kara Swisher recently pointed out, this is due in part to the male-dominated ethos of Silicon Valley, where men are viewed as the “key players” and women “are just not seen as crucial.”
Zuckerberg’s been portrayed as hapless, distracted by his own political ambitions and unaware of what was going on in his company. It seems like the CEO ought to know about this kind of thing, but there have been relatively few calls for Zuckerberg’s head. Instead, the consensus is that Zuckerberg is somehow the only one who can fix the problems at his company, as Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently wrote.
Sandberg took her own advice and leaned all the way in ― and she made it. She was the one who figured out how to monetize Facebook’s business, Stapp points out. Not Zuckerberg.
“She brought maturity to Facebook,” Stapp said. “Clearly with a few ‘questionable’ choices.”
For years she’s been described as the adult in the room, watching over the younger Zuckerberg. She was the “mommy.”
And when things go wrong, of course, it’s always Mom’s fault.