Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Meta marks the end of an era, not only for the company previously known as Facebook but also for a kind of feminism that has become somewhat unfashionable.
The advice relied heavily on her own experience but was often peppered with nuggets from psychological or sociological research. She framed it as focusing on the “internal obstacles” women face on the road to the top: the way women are socialized to defer to others, to get every detail exactly right and to be likable at all costs.
Early reaction to the book was positive, but a backlash quickly emerged. Sandberg wrote in “Lean In” that she would steer mostly clear of structural barriers to gender equality because she believed that those very real impediments had been covered extensively elsewhere. She also acknowledged that a high-flying corporate career wasn’t everyone’s definition of success. And she said that she recognized that most women were struggling just to make ends meet, not to get the corner office. But Sandberg was nevertheless lambasted for not delving into those questions — essentially, for not writing a completely different book.
In feminist circles it became decidedly uncool to defend “Lean In.” Today it’s something of a shorthand for a certain type of feminism — wealthy, White, capitalist, cisgender and heterosexual. Out of touch. “Girlboss” feminism that basically says, “If you can’t beat the patriarchy, join it.”
Some of the criticism was helpful. In particular, it catalyzed a broader conversation about overwork, capitalism and male-centered professional norms. Some academics said the book spurred them to conduct new studies examining Sandberg’s claims. In the years following the book’s commercial success, I saw more academic journals publishing meaningful research on gender disparities at work. Anecdotally, I heard from researchers that journals had suddenly become more amenable to studies that a few years earlier would have been deemed too niche.
Whenever an idea takes off, there is always some portion that is due purely to timing. Sandberg (along with a co-author and a researcher) wrote a compelling book. But there had been compelling books written on this topic before. Why did this one catch fire? Did Sandberg just hit the zeitgeist jackpot, or did she actually reshape the zeitgeist?
Probably a bit of both. But one thing was clear to me at the time as a longtime observer of women in power: By speaking up about her own experiences, Sandberg changed the conversation.
Until “Lean In,” many high-level female leaders would demur when asked about gender at work. “I’m not a woman at Google, I’m a geek at Google,” in future Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer’s memorable phrase. Some senior women discussed equality at work, but it wasn’t common to find someone in a C-level role willing to talk about demanding pregnancy parking after waddling across the company parking lot with swollen ankles, as Sandberg did. It was as if they feared that admitting to femaleness would cause them to be taken less seriously.
After Sandberg’s book became a bestseller, other female executives were more willing to talk about their experiences. And just as crucially, publishers were hungry for other books on gender equality. Sandberg had shown there was a market.
Some terrible books got published. And the phenomenon focused too much on White women from elite backgrounds. But as someone who remembers a period of time when these stories either struggled to break through or when women themselves didn’t want to talk about their experiences of working while female, it felt exciting to see this conversation take root.
In the years since, several large companies have dramatically expanded parental leave and the federal government started offering paid maternity leave to federal employees. Eight states have now passed laws guaranteeing some form of paid maternity leave. The #MeToo movement blew the doors off a culture of enabling sexual harassers. Feminism became, somewhat weirdly to this child of the 1980s backlash, momentarily trendy; Beyoncé performed in front of a huge sign that said “FEMINIST.”
Perhaps nothing marks the sea change quite as clearly as Hillary Clinton’s two presidential runs. In the 2008 election, she downplayed her gender, following the pre-“Lean In” script for a successful woman: “Nothing to see here, I’m just one of the guys.” In 2016, she embraced her role as a glass-ceiling breaker. That time, she won the nomination. We now have a female vice president.
I don’t attribute the successes of those other women to Sandberg, who didn’t single-handedly bring about a major cultural shift. But I do credit her for being willing to discuss her femaleness alongside her leadership responsibilities in a candid, deeply personal way. “Lean In” was one of the sparks that lit larger fires.
As Sandberg prepares to step down, it feels like those fires are flickering. Sexual harassment still happens in companies, yet we are told the MeToo movement overreached. It feels trivial to talk about pregnancy parking when women in many states may soon lose the ability to decide whether they want to be pregnant at all. And Sandberg’s reputation has taken a beating along with Meta’s in the wake of scandals from Cambridge Analytica to the Rohingya massacre to studies that show Instagram hurts young girls’ mental health.
I’ll be very interested to see where she directs her energies and philanthropy next. It’s clear that women and girls are still issues that are close to her heart. They could use her unfettered and unfiltered voice now.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Sandberg Is Leaving Facebook at a Perilous Moment: Parmy Olson
Are Workers More Productive at Home?: Justin Fox
There Is Good Reason for Tech Workers to Embrace the Office: Cathy O’Neil
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”
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