Sheryl Sandberg leaves a complicated legacy as a vocal, high-profile woman in tech

Sheryl Sandberg’s resignation from Meta Platforms (FB) saw a world of opinions about her complicated legacy hit social media. She was a champion for some women and derided by others for suggesting in her book, “Lean In,” that women could succeed if they just asserted themselves.

For all the criticisms and scandals Sandberg saw, her resignation nevertheless leaves a void in tech and American business as a whole. Sandberg, who was responsible for pioneering the company’s ads model, was a highly public and vocal female executive in a world where it’s still very difficult for women to rise through the ranks. Her departure will leave a gap in Silicon Valley.

“She’s been one of the most visible, high-ranking female leaders in American business, and it’s actually remarkable the extent to which she’s used that platform as a way of highlighting issues related to women and business,” said Dorie Clark, executive education professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Obviously, there are still not as many extremely successful female executives as we would like to see. Of that relatively small universe, most of them have not chosen to highlight issues related to women in business or feminism, and that’s certainly their prerogative.”

To be sure, there are a few high-profile female executives in Silicon Valley right now, including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat, and Microsoft CFO Amy Hood. However, so far, for better or worse, none of them has done what Sandberg did — put herself in the arena as a feminist, prepared to be criticized, mocked, and most of all, to be wrong.

Though much of her philosophy was about how women held themselves back, that philosophy was also rooted in very public, outspoken discussions about how hard it was — and is — for women to reach the highest levels of their professions.

“Women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment,” she said in a 2010 TED talk. “A recent study in the US showed that, of married senior managers, two-thirds of the married men had children and only one-third of the married women had children.”

“So, the question is, how are we going to fix this?” she continued. “How do we change these numbers at the top? How do we make this different?… Now, at the outset, I want to be very clear that this speech comes with no judgments. I don’t have the right answer. I don’t even have it for myself.”

Sandberg’s contributions to Facebook’s business model also shouldn’t be underestimated, said Forrester VP and Research Director Mike Proulx. Indeed, in 2021, roughly 97% of Facebook’s $117 billion revenue came from its ads business.

“Sheryl Sandberg has been with the company for a very, very long time,” he told Yahoo Finance. “She’s been a prominent individual, a very visible and external speaker for the company. She’s created the type of scale and monetization around the company’s core offerings, including Facebook and its ad products, that’s a big part of her legacy.”

The criticisms and scandals, to be fair, have been many. For one, Sandberg has been accused of complicity in Facebook’s disinformation crisis, which culminated in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That political consulting firm harvested the data of unsuspecting Facebook users, and the company eventually paid billions in fines.

“During Sheryl Sandberg’s 14-year tenure at Meta, the company’s social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — devolved into cesspools of disinformation, racism, misogyny, violent conspiracy theories, and alt-right organizing,” said Angelo Carusone, president of nonprofit watchdog Media Matters for America in a statement.

Additionally, earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Sandberg had pressured tabloid The Daily Mail to drop an article it was planning on running about her then-boyfriend, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

Then, of course, there’s the firestorm of criticism that’s been leveled at “Lean In,” her book-turned-philosophy that advocates for building self-confidence and adapting in an inherently sexist system. That wave of criticisms includes accusations that the philosophy is by definition elitist, racist, and doesn’t account for the challenges of working moms. In 2018, Michelle Obama even famously told a crowd at New York’s Barclays Center, “It’s not enough to lean in because that sh*t doesn’t always work.”

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a press conference in London to announce the social media company's plans to hire 1,000 more people in the UK by the end of 2020. PA Photo.  Picture date: Tuesday January 21, 2020. See PA story TECHNOLOGY Facebook.  Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a press conference in London to announce the social media company’s plans to hire 1,000 more people in the UK by the end of 2020. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

For better or worse, Sandberg was singular

In all fairness to Sandberg, tech is a famously difficult place for women to advance. For instance, in technical jobs — from software developers to data scientists — 52 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level, according to a 2021 McKinsey report co-authored with LeanIn.Org.

There’s also evidence that the pandemic has taken a toll on female tech workers, and particularly female tech workers of color. In 2021, 59% of racially and ethnically diverse female workers of color felt less optimistic about their career prospects than before the pandemic as compared to 48% of white female tech workers, according to a Deloitte survey published last year that polled 500 female tech workers . Of those women, 83% said that their workload increased throughout the pandemic.

If that weren’t enough, the industry has a well-documented sexual harassment problem. A March 2022 S&P study revealed that, of more than 600 women working in tech surveyed, one in three reported sexual harassment on the job. These figures suggest that not much has changed since pre-pandemic, when Uber (UBER) agreed to pay $4.4 million to settle a federal sexual harassment probe in late 2019.

In 2013, when “Lean In” was first published, it was before the #MeToo movement illuminated the systemic sexism holding back so many women. Does that excuse Sandberg’s failures and blindspots? No, of course not. Still, her voice was singular and, in her absence, if someone’s going to speak out — if we need that — it’s not clear who that person will be, or if anyone will take up that mantle at all.

“Sandberg was willing to risk her own reputational capital by championing feminism, which hasn’t always been the most popular or the coolest cause to be associated with,” Clark said. “She really made a conscious choice to stick her neck out on that issue and raise awareness about it, and I think she deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks

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