Sandberg, 52, announced Wednesday that she was stepping down as COO after a 14-year stint at a company she helped transform from a social media website for college students into a mammoth digital-advertising business. Sandberg, who has positioned herself as a champion of women in the workplace, said she would be leaving Facebook to spend more time with her family and on her philanthropic work.
“I’d like to think the career I’ve had and the career of other female leaders inspires women to know that they can lead,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “If you were growing up 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have known a single woman in business. If you are growing up today, you know some. I hope my daughters are going to grow up in a world where there are a lot more.”
As one of the wealthiest self-made female billionaires in the world, Sandberg was a symbol that women could make it to the top of a male-dominated industry like Sillcon Valley tech companies. Her advice to women who wanted to ascend higher in their careers was simply to “lean in,” or be more assertive at their jobs, which became a cultural phenomenon. Her 2010 TED Talk, a best-selling book and the nonprofit foundation Lean In propelled her into a kind of corporate stardom that few chief operating officers enjoy while being second-in-command at their companies.
Sandberg was among Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted deputies for years, and people spoke of the two informally as “co-CEOs” — making her one of the few high-powered women at the helm of a tech giant.
“This is a big loss in terms of just having women represented in Silicon Valley in a meaningful way,” said Crystal Patterson, a former senior manager at Facebook and current managing director at the lobbying firm Washington Media Group. “There isn’t another Sheryl.”
Over the years, Sandberg has struggled to retain her voice as a champion of women as Facebook, which changed its name to Meta last year, continued to be overrun with political controversies during her tenure. Sandberg has faced criticism over, among other things, viral covid misinformation and the role the company played in spreading former president Donald Trump’s false claims that 2020 presidential election was rigged.
“Her value as a messenger definitely shifted over time with the fortunes of the company,” Patterson added.
While women have made small gains in ascending to the highest levels of power in corporations, the C-suite is still dominated by men. In 2021, 26 percent of all CEOs and managing directors were women, up from 15 percent in 2019, according to a report by the 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 leaned out. A 2021 report conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org found that 1 in 3 women had considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, which represented an increase from the share of women who said the same during the first few months of the pandemic.
And female workers, especially in racial minorities, were often overrepresented in careers that were 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 there were in February 2020, while men mostly recouped their job losses during that time frame.
Sandberg said in the interview with The Post that she thinks the Lean In campaign can and will survive her departure from Facebook.
There are some other high-profile women in tech who could pick up where Sandberg left off. Last year, Fidji Simo left her role as head of the Facebook app to become the chief executive of Instacart. Deborah Liu, also a former Facebook executive, became the 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 business officer, Marne Levine, have recently taken on bigger 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 execs that can pick up this mantle,” said Katie Harbath, a former Facebook employee and CEO of the consulting firm Anchor Change.
Sandberg’s image as a corporate feminist was first burnished after the 2010 TED Talk, in which she chronicled what she saw as the reasons women were still struggling to compete with men in moving up the corporate latter. She argued, among other things, that women often held themselves back by not taking credit for their own wins or not seeking out more ambitious opportunities out of fear they wouldn’t be able to manage the demands of their home lives.
“No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table,” she said. “And no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success.”
Sandberg followed up the talk with a 2013 book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” that helped thrust her into the spotlight. Later, she started the Lean In foundation, which helps organize networking groups for women to support one another in their careers.
But Sandberg’s ideas quickly faced criticism for failing to take into account the additional barriers faced by women of color and those who don’t work in corporate environments. Others argued she was downplaying the systematic barriers that keep women out of boardrooms and overplaying their level of personal agency in the matter.
Amy Nelson, founder and co-CEO of a co-working start-up for women called the Riveter, said she hopes Sandberg will focus on bringing greater equity to the conversation Lean In started.
“She was talking about something before a lot of people in terms of the need for professional women to have a community and advocate for one another, and I think Lean In played a critical role in changing that,” Nelson said. “But I also think it’s very clear that the ability to lean in is a privilege largely held by White women, and the discussion leaves behind women who don’t have money or connections or support.”
“I think we need to have that conversation,” Nelson continued. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Sheryl led that discussion?”
The Lean In strategy also faced philosophical challenges from the #MeToo movement, which highlighted the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and sexism that persists for even highly successful women in their careers.
Still, on Wednesday, women inside and outside Facebook congratulated her on making the move.
“I think that she started that movement,” said Debbie Frost, a former Facebook executive and current adviser to Lean In. “I don’t think that leaves when she leaves. In fact, I think that the impact that she can have on more companies and more organizations now will be what’s going to be the most profound and exciting thing.”
As for Sandberg’s future, she said it’s not yet fully mapped out. She’ll get remarried soon and continue to raise her kids, she said in a Facebook post announcing her departure.
“I am not entirely sure what the future will bring — I have learned no one ever is,” she said in the post. “I know it will include focusing more on my foundation and philanthropic work, which is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.”
Read More: Sheryl Sandberg departure marks the end of an era for women in tech