The departure of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, marks the end of an era for women in technology

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For years, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to climb the corporate ladder by making themselves known in the workplace and asking their spouses for more help at home. .

Today, her departure from Facebook as one of America’s most senior female corporate leaders marks the end of an era in the brand of empowerment feminism she championed as an essential tool in the fight against sexism in the workplace.

Sandberg, 52, announced on Wednesday that she is stepping down as chief operating officer after a 14-year stint at a company she helped transform from a social media website for students into a gigantic digital advertising company. Sandberg, who has positioned herself as a champion for women in the workplace, said she will leave Facebook to spend more time with her family and on her philanthropic work.

“I’d like to think that the career I’ve had and the careers of other female leaders inspire women to know they can lead,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “If you had grown up 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have known a single businesswoman. If you are growing up today, you know some. I hope my daughters will grow up in a world where there are many more.

CEO Sheryl Sandberg leaves Facebook

As one of the richest self-made female billionaires in the world, Sandberg was a symbol that women could rise to the top of a male-dominated industry like Sillcon Valley tech companies. His advice to women who wanted to move up the ladder in their careers was to simply “lean in” or be more assertive in their work, which has become a cultural phenomenon. Her 2010 TED Talk, a bestselling book, and the nonprofit Lean In Foundation propelled her into a kind of corporate stardom that few COOs enjoy while being second in command to their business.

Sandberg was among Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted aides for years, and people have referred to the two informally as “co-CEOs,” making her one of the few high-ranking women. level at the head of a technology giant.

“It’s a great loss in terms of meaningful female representation in Silicon Valley,” said Crystal Patterson, a former senior Facebook executive and current chief executive of lobbying firm Washington Media Group. “There is no other Sheryl.”

Over the years, Sandberg has struggled to retain her voice as women’s champion as Facebook, which changed its name to Meta last year, continued to be beset by political controversy during its tenure. mandate. Sandberg has faced criticism regarding, among other things, viral covid misinformation and the role the company played in spreading former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election has been rigged.

During a Senate hearing on September 5, 2018, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg explained how data is collected and shared with advertisers. (Video: Reuters)

“Her value as a messenger has definitely changed over time with the fortunes of the business,” Patterson added.

While women have made small gains in rising to the highest levels of corporate power, the C-suite is still dominated by men. In 2021, 26% of all CEOs and managing directors were women, up from 15% in 2019, according to a report by women’s advocacy group Catalyst.

The movement to get more women into better roles in corporate America has stalled in recent years. Faced with tough choices about how to balance career aspirations with the demands of caring for loved ones during pandemic-induced shutdowns, many women have grappled. A 2021 report produced by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org found that one in three women had considered leaving the workforce or changing careers, which is an increase from the proportion of women who said the same in the early months of the pandemic.

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And female workers, particularly from racial minorities, were often overrepresented in careers hit hard by the pandemic. A recent report by the National Women’s Law Center found that there were still 1 million fewer women in the labor force in January 2022 than in February 2020, while men mostly recovered their job losses during this period.

Sandberg said in the interview with The Post that she believes the Lean In campaign can and will survive her departure from Facebook..

There are other high-profile women in tech who could pick up where Sandberg left off. Last year, Fiji Simo quit her job as Facebook app manager to become chief executive of Instacart. Deborah Liu, also a former Facebook executive, became CEO of Ancestry.com. Susan Wojcicki is the CEO of YouTube, and Safra Catz holds that title at software company Oracle.

Facebook’s chief legal officer, Jennifer Newstead, and chief commercial officer, Marne Levine, have recently taken on larger roles at the social media giant.

“There are still a ton of issues for women in tech, but Sheryl leaves a long wake of female executives who can pick up that torch,” said Katie Harbath, former Facebook employee and CEO of consulting firm Anchor Change. .

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Sandberg’s image as a corporate feminist was first boosted after the 2010 TED Talk, in which she recounted what she saw as why women still struggled to compete. men to move up the corporate ladder. She argued, among other things, that women often hold themselves back by not taking credit for their own victories or seeking more ambitious opportunities for fear of not being able to handle the demands of their lives. family.

“No one goes to the corner office sitting sideways, not at the table,” she said. “And nobody gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success.”

Sandberg continued the conversation with a 2013 book, “Bend Down: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, which helped propel her into the limelight. Later, she started the Lean In Foundation, which helps organize networking groups for women to support each other in their careers.

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But Sandberg’s ideas were quickly criticized for failing to take into account the additional barriers faced by women of color and those who don’t work in corporate settings. Others argued that she downplayed the systematic barriers that keep women out of conference rooms and exaggerated their level of personal action in the matter.

Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table,” said she was grateful Sandberg had created a conversation that needed to happen. But, she said, it’s disappointing that Sandberg didn’t lead with an intersectional lens and that left black and brown women out of the conversation.

“Sheryl used to tell women to bend over, but it’s very hard to bend over if you’re not already in the room,” she said.

Amy Nelson, founder and co-CEO of a women’s coworking startup called The Riveter, said she hopes Sandberg will focus on bringing greater equity to the conversation that Lean In has started.

“She was talking about something in front of a lot of people in terms of the need for professional women to have community and to stand up for each other, and I think Lean In was instrumental in changing that,” said Nelson. “But I also think it’s very clear that the ability to bend over is a privilege largely held by white women, and the discussion leaves behind women who have no money, no connections, no support.”

“I think we need to have this conversation,” Nelson continued. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Sheryl led this discussion?”

The Lean In strategy has also faced the philosophical challenges of the #MeToo movement, which has exposed the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and sexism that persists even for highly successful women in their careers.

Yet on Wednesday, women inside and outside of Facebook praised her for taking the step.

“I think she started this movement,” said Debbie Frost, former Facebook executive and current Lean In adviser. “I don’t think it goes away when she leaves. In fact, I think the impact she can have on more companies and more organizations now is going to be the most profound and exciting thing.

As for Sandberg’s future, she said it was not quite mapped out yet. She will soon remarry and continue raising her children, she said in a Facebook post announcing her departure.

“I’m not quite sure what the future will bring – I’ve learned that no one ever is,” she said in the post. “I know this will mean focusing more on my foundation and my philanthropic work, which is more important than ever to me given how critical this time is for women.”

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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