ANALYSIS: Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and what she still means for women leaders

For the last decade, the gathering of the global elite at Davos has been a safe space for Sheryl Sandberg. This year, though, fresh off a bruising 2018, the Facebook COO arrived in the Alps on the defensive, apologising over and over again for Facebook’s privacy and ethical slip-ups. She was notably absent from the conference’s main equality and gender discussions; she was fighting a cold and her voice was a rasp.

Over the last few months, the Sheryl Sandberg brand has taken a beating, and news about Facebook’s misdeeds—and her reported role in them—is unrelenting.

Questions about privacy, Russian election hacking, unsavory opposition targeting dominated the end of 2018, and the New Year began with new reports of questionable data collection practices that led Apple to ban some of Facebook’s internal apps.

Through it all, pundits dissected Sandberg’s “fall from grace,” employees blamed her for the company’s woes and a stunning stock slide, and critics called for her resignation. Corporate feminism fell out of favor, #MeToo exposed the weaknesses of “leaning in” and Sandberg’s own fallibility cast her feminist empowerment side-project in a newly harsh light.

But there are signs that Sandberg’s reputation is on the mend. It helps that Facebook doesn’t seem to be suffering any: fourth-quarter results were better than expected and the stock is up. Both the company and Lean In say they’re committed to Sandberg’s leadership, and from Switzerland to San Francisco, women, particularly those working in technology, are coming out in support of the embattled COO.

'Not a superhero'

“I still look up to her,” said Annie Hsieh, an engineering manager at Square Root, an Austin-based tech company. Like more than a dozen women interviewed by Bloomberg, Hsieh said she doesn’t think Sandberg acted to the highest moral and ethical standards, but she also knows how hard it is to make it to the top in the tech world. “She’s just another human and she’s not a superhero. I think some of the criticism is valid and a lot of it is unfair.”

Sandberg, for her part, started off the New Year on an image rehabilitation tour. On January 20, she made her first public appearance in the new year at the DLD conference in Munich. “As we listen to people around the world,” she said, “they tell us that they want an internet, where people speak up, but they’re not spreading hate.”

“We know we need to do better,” she went on. “We need to stop abuse more quickly and we need to do more to protect more people’s data.”

From there, she went to Dublin and then Davos, where she atoned again and again. For her peers at the World Economic Forum, the apologies were more than enough. “There isn't a single organisation that I have the honor to work with out there that doesn't still look to her for leadership,” said Patricia Milligan, a senior partner at Mercer, the HR consulting firm.

That includes Facebook.

Sandberg directly oversees the parts of the business that have been most embroiled in scandal, such as policy and content operations, but the company says if there’s a problem, they believe in Sandberg’s ability to address it. “Under Sheryl’s leadership, we now have more than 30 000 people working on safety and security, we’ve cracked down on fake accounts and misinformation, and we’ve set a new standard for ads transparency,” the company said.

“She has done a lot for women in tech, we shouldn't forget that,” said Gillian Tans, the CEO of "It takes 3 to 4 times the effort for a woman to achieve the level of success that many of us who are here have achieved. Yet it takes one misstep to fall off your pedestal.”

Back at sea level, women like Hsieh are also inclined to forgive. Many women working in tech told Bloomberg they dislike Lean In’s message of do-it-yourself women’s empowerment. Most of them denounced Sandberg’s recently reported involvement in covering up Russian interference on Facebook (if true). But most also said she’s been held to an unfair standard, and overall, they believe she’s done more good than bad.

“She has crossed a boundary,” said Nancy Wang, a Senior Manager of Product Management at Amazon Web Services. “But we have to look at someone holistically. What she has done for women in tech, that’s something you can’t take away from her.”

It helps to understand how rare Sandberg’s accomplishments are. Women make up about a quarter of the computing workforce but just 11% of leadership roles, according to a study by McKinsey and Company. Among those leaders, no one has the power or portfolio of responsibility that Sandberg does. At Fortune 500 companies with COO positions, only 10% are filled by women.

So while there are plenty of examples of powerful men logging all manner of successes and failures, Sandberg has come to stand-in for all women in technology. Her very existence has opened up streams of funding, according to Lisa Falzone, now CEO and co-founder of Athena Security. She started her first company in 2010—before Facebook went public and before Lean In—and it was hard to get venture capitalists to take her seriously. Now, she says, things have changed, and that’s a credit to Sandberg.

“You have to have more successful women that people can point to so VCs will give more women money,” said Falzone. “If they’ve never seen a woman be successful before, they’re not going to invest in women.”

Leaning in

Lean In’s own research suggests that “leaning in” isn’t the panacea Sandberg herself once thought. Women are asking for raises more often, but they’re not getting them. Some 40 percent of women in technical roles are often or always the only female in the room at work and, as a result, they often need to provide more evidence of their competence. They’re also likely to be mistaken for someone more junior. But Sandberg’s existence—and her success—does make a difference. Research shows that women are more harshly penalised when they make mistakes. They’re also less likely to get second chances. One reason women are rooting for her rehabilitation is self-interest: They worry if she falls, they’ll suffer too.

Ironically, the solution, according to Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business, is more Sheryl Sandbergs, not fewer. If there were more women in positions of real power, more junior workers wouldn’t feel like they had to hold on to their one hero. Then the world could experience women with a variety of leadership styles—good and bad—and judge them as complex, holistic humans—just like we do with men.

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