What Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook Disaster Means for Women


“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, her slim, how-to-succeed guide for women in business that quickly became the subject of intense intra-feminist debate when it came out in 2013. As C.O.O. of Facebook, and one of the few women in the world running a behemoth company, Sandberg’s insights were, depending on who you asked, either the kind of potentially helpful advice routinely handed down from more senior women to junior ones, or faux-feminist victim-blaming in disguise—why are we telling individual women to work harder when a sexist system has set them up for failure?—aimed at an elite minority from an ultra-elite individual.

Despite media billing, Sandberg was never a feminist icon. But for many feminists (including this one), she was the rare example of a high-up woman in the corporate world at least integrating feminist thought into her work, and advocating for gender equality in a male-dominated tech space, where even bringing up gender has been a professional liability. Was Sandberg our anointed leader? Of course not. Was her book probably a good thing, insofar as it displayed a kind of convivial gateway feminism for the unconverted? Yes, I believed, it was—and Sandberg, with her warmth and polish, seemed like a good messenger for the sensible-heel set who may not be reading bell hooks.

Whoops.

This week’s blockbuster New York Times investigation of Facebook’s myriad misdeeds points a finger directly at Sandberg, along with Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg, for their distortions, dissembling, and dirty tactics to cover for the company’s negligence in handling Russian political influence and user privacy. Sandberg, in particular, comes across poorly, most notably for her decision to tap Joel Kaplan, a Republican veteran of the George W. Bush White House, as Facebook’s vice president for corporate public policy. The company seems more concerned for its reputation, and more worried about the reactions of Republican voters, than about security, propaganda, and a hostile foreign power meddling in American elections (not to mention Facebook being used to facilitate genocide in Myanmar, according to activists).

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It’s Sandberg who catches most of the heat in the article, underhandedly attacking critics and leveraging her political connections to score gentler treatment. Zuckerberg, 34, plays the role of hapless ingénue, a Silicon Valley man-boy C.E.O. still grappling with the enormity of what he built, more negligent than malicious. Sandberg, 49, doesn’t enjoy the presumption of naïveté; she is the article’s villain-in-chief.

This characterization is both deserved and discomfiting. There is little question that Sandberg behaved immorally and in violation of the public’s trust, that she put the short-term goals of the company and her own status ahead of decency, transparency, and democracy itself. At the same time, there is something darkly familiar about women in power being portrayed as deceitful and conniving, while men who behave the same way are presumed to be innocent or simply operating in the normal course of business. Sandberg deserves the criticism that is coming her way. But so do the men with whom she has stood shoulder to shoulder, and for whom she now seems to be taking the fall.

Inevitably, the fall of Sheryl Sandberg—whether she leaves the company (which she should), or whether she is forever dogged by this story (which she may be)—will be dealt with in the same terms as nearly every story about a powerful woman who eventually failed: what does this mean for women?

Here’s the answer: It means women, like men, are not representatives of a cohesive and homogenous group. Women are just as capable as men of being dishonest, dissembling, greedy, and self-interested (as well as courageous, naïve, innovative, petulant, and a series of other human characteristics). This is a depressing and ironic example of what feminists have been saying all along: women are people. Our demands for equality don’t stem from a claim that we’re better, more moral, or more ethical than men. Sandberg doesn’t say anything more about female corporate leaders than Zuckerberg does about male ones.

But our treatment of Sandberg, and the narratives we use around women in power, tell us a lot. One story we see over and over, in business, politics, media, sports, and many other industries, is that we expect women to be better—to be more competent and more ethical, to be better communicators and more generous mentors. When we see a powerful woman behave like so many powerful men—in this case, badly, but in others, even imperfectly or with some barely perceptible flaw—we often react with twice the outrage, demand a magnified penalty, and build in a subplot about influential women more generally. This extends beyond Facebook. In Congress, for example, potential House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, oversaw incredible Democratic successes in the midterms, giving the party a majority and ushering in the most diverse class of Democratic Congress people in history. For her efforts, she faces a challenge to her allegedly inadequate leadership and critiques from the right for being too liberal, and the left for being too moderate. (Pelosi’s voting record shows her to be left of the congressional average.)

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Women can indeed be bad at their jobs. But the rules and expectations also seem to change when there’s a woman in the chair.

These two things can coexist at once: Sheryl Sandberg can be rightly cast as a corporate villain, and also misogyny can animate how we understand, portray, and punish women’s unscrupulousness. That doesn’t mean we cut Sandberg unearned slack in the name of feminism. It does mean that we knock off the “boys will be boys” attitude about men in boardrooms.

Over and over, we see the bar for goodness, competence, and trustworthiness ratcheted up as soon as a woman steps into any given public position. Often, this is inappropriate, but for our corporate tech overlords, higher expectations for transparency and basic decency are far overdue. Much of our lives are now lived online, from how we work, date, shop, and travel to how we read the news, understand the world, advocate for a cause, store our most precious memories, organize events, and participate in the democratic process. And yet the platforms via which we engage in so many of life’s activities are run by a small group of individuals who are mostly white, mostly male, primarily self-interested, and almost entirely unaccountable. There’s no problem with raising the bar; we should just also require that powerful men clear it, too.

The journalists at the Times did what journalists do best with this exposé: they held the powerful to account. This may spell the beginning of the end for Sandberg’s time at Facebook, and a departure would be warranted. Still, one woman taking the fall for systematic misdeeds that span the top level of the company isn’t a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps the only justifiable outcome is that Sandberg goes. But a bunch of men should go along with her.

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