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Opinion With Sheryl Sandberg’s departure, the ‘lean in’ era is officially over

Sheryl Sandberg. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
5 min

On Wednesday, Sheryl Sandberg announced that she would be leaving her position as chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company later this year. It’s hard not to see her exit as yet another sign of the times for women — and a reminder of how the optimistic spirit of her signature book, “Lean In,” has faded.

“Lean In,” published in 2013, is at its heart a can-do treatise, a bit of self-help meets sociological analysis. In its day, the book argued that women needed to not let the judgments get to us — she’s too bossy, she’s too nice — but to persist despite them. We needed to speak up at the conference table, and do it again if a man spoke up over us. We needed to explain, to male bosses and boyfriends and husbands, over and over again, how important family leave, child care and help around the house were to female success in the workplace. And most important: We needed to not give up, not mentally exit the job when confronted by obstacle after obstacle.

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Sandberg seemed convinced that the issue wasn’t that men wanted to keep women back. In her view, most of us, male or female, were victims of convention and self-defeating habits, and that could be changed. It always seemed a bit rosy. Was it really going to be as easy for the rest of us as for Sandberg, who, when she was heavily pregnant, marched into Google founder (and her boss) Sergey Brin’s office to explain why she and other women in her position needed special parking? But no one will ever go broke betting on the American appetite for advice that puts the responsibility for solving systemic economic and discriminatory issues on individuals. “Lean In” soared onto bestseller lists — and Sandberg’s reputation soared along with it.

It all began crashing down to Earth in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Women began leaning in not just to the corner office, but in opposition to his presidency — and, at least in the short term, it seemed to have no effect at all. (Sandberg, initially, was nowhere to be found.) The #MeToo movement — which no doubt drew some of its rage from the fact that a man credibly accused of multiple instances of sexual assault was ensconced in the White House — made it clear that leaning in to your career would not always protect you from harm. Women faced substantive barriers to getting ahead that, in many cases, no amount of moxie or determination could surmount. And, in the wake of #MeToo, Sandberg’s request to men to mentor women at work fell flat, with some men refusing to hire women for positions in which they needed to travel with them or meet with them one-on-one.

Then there was this: Facebook, in pursuit of profits, kept ignoring serious wrongdoing. There was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the utilization of the social media site by white nationalists. Sandberg, who joined Facebook in 2008 as second in command to then 23-year-old co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, was a major architect of the business strategy that turned the social media site into a mass personal spying apparatus — one I’ve deemed morally indefensible — that earned $114 billion in advertising revenue last year, and shared responsibility for all this. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result, Sandberg found herself somewhat sidelined as Zuckerberg shifted Facebook’s focus toward the emerging world of Web 3.0 and renamed the company Meta.

There is, I’ve been known to observe, a tension at the heart of the feminist movement. Do women simply want in on the turbo capitalist and corporate worlds that govern so much of our lives, or do we want to transform them? Sandberg, who accumulated a $1.6 billion net worth serving the interests of Facebook, clearly represented the former. But what we rarely want to admit is that this is often a false choice. The simple act of seeking equality is transformative, and people, male or female, rarely surrender or share power without a fight. Sandberg, part of the power structure herself, couldn’t see that.

What “Lean In” also failed to acknowledge is that whatever gains women make are not necessarily secure. Progress is not a line ascending ever higher; it can all go into a sudden reverse. Women’s workforce participation plummeted during the pandemic, and there are still more than 700,000 fewer women on the job today than in February 2020. We are probably weeks away from the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, which would result in abortion becoming either illegal or highly restricted in about half the states. If a woman cannot fully control her own body, she does not have full economic agency or control of her life. As if this were not bad enough, there are Republican legislators chomping at the bit to take on birth control next. Yes, birth control.

Sandberg has expressed horror about the possible abortion ruling, and says she is leaving Facebook to devote more time both to her personal life (she’s remarrying later this year) and to women’s advocacy issues. May she find happiness and success in that new focus. We’re going to need all the help we can get.