Sheryl Sandberg and the Crackling Hellfire of Corporate America

Is this feminism?

A black-and-white image of Sheryl Sandberg's face covered with spiking line-graph arrows
The Atlantic; Antoine Antoniol / Getty

About the author: Caitlin Flanagan is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She is the author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.

In publishing, there are some books that are too big to fail. Very early on you get the message that this is a Major and Very Important Book. In 2013, that book was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which sold more than 1.5 million copies in its first year. She was the chief operating officer of Facebook, back when most of us had no understanding of the platform’s fearsome powers—in the halcyon days when we thought it was just for sharing pictures of the grandkids and ruining marriages. The book was about how women can make it to the top. It was a sort of “work-life balance” category buster, because she was telling women to pretty much forget about the “life” part.

In the weeks before the big rollout, I was contacted by editors at several publications asking if I would write something about it. I knew exactly what they wanted—not the main article, which would be a rapturous announcement of this bold American visionary. They wanted some crank to pump out a “What About the Children?” sidebar, pointing out that to lean into work you have to lean away from your family, to lend a spirit of objectivity to their 21-gun salutes to author and book. Trust me, around 2013 I was the top crank for that kind of thing.

But when I looked through the galley, the whole thing was so manufactured and B-school-ish that I just wanted to put my head on the keyboard and have a little nap. Still, I myself had been leaning in to the lucrative book-reviewing space for a long time, and I could tell there was money on the table because these Sheryl Sandberg packages were obviously going to be lavish. If I played my cards right, I could be looking at one large. Where to get it?

Time Inc., as it turned out. It was a purely meretricious transaction, but I didn’t phone it in. I did the honorable thing and read the book closely. Almost immediately I saw that its main problem wasn’t the children. This was a book about how women in corporate America could—and should—strive to get the most money and the most power. But where should they seek such power? In the crackling hellfire of C-suite America.

Sandberg invoked the name Goldman Sachs multiple times—in a good way. Mind you, this book was published five years after that despicable outfit played a major role in almost bankrupting the country. She tells us it was a “seismic event” when, in the late ’90s, Goldman Sachs made a woman named Amy Goodfriend head of its U.S. derivatives team; she stayed at the company until 2001. “Amy’s a bitch, but an honest bitch,” one man said about her. If I ever write one of these books, I’ll call it A Few Honest Bitches, and explain that if we can get the right kind of women inside these places, we might be able to burn them down.

Why were the progressive worlds of publishing and journalism embracing this junk as some kind of giant step toward equality? It will surely go down in history as one of white feminism’s greatest achievements.

I didn’t send Time a book review so much as a red-flag warning. Time had published a cover story in the midst of the financial crisis called “The Price of Greed”; Lean In was a return to Greed is Good. But the editors didn’t care about Cassandra in the sidebar. The copy was clean, and they slapped on a title they liked (the title was “What About the Children?”), and I decided to act very Goldman Sachs about the situation. I cashed the check the day it arrived.

Sheryl Sandberg announced this month that she’s resigning from Facebook—now called Meta—to focus on her philanthropy. Her work there is done.

During her 14 years at the company, she’s done so much damage to our society that we may never recover. The simple truth is that you cannot simultaneously dedicate yourself to making untold fortunes for a giant corporation and to championing a social good. Facebook—supposedly a wondrous, no-charge gift to the world—was made of you and me. It needed our baby pictures, our religious and political affiliations; it needed the names of our high schools and employers and favorite movies and hometowns. It let us set up shop as the very particular and special individuals we are—and it was all free. In fact, it was ruinously expensive. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” There we were: suckers, lambs to the slaughter. It didn’t even occur to us that all of that information wasn’t “safe.” We didn’t want it to be safe! We wanted our long-lost friends from Brownie Troop 347 to be able to find us! When we realized what we’d done, it was already too late.

During the Trump campaign, we got a taste of what a giant, mysterious corporation can do with all of that information. A political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica had gotten hold of the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users. That data was used in service of the “psychological warfare” that Steve Bannon wanted to wage against the American public. It sent voters down just the right rabbit holes; it whispered in their ears. It was a fooling-some-of-the-people-all-of-the-time operation.

“We made mistakes and I own them,” Sandberg eventually said about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “They are on me.” The impression was of radical transparency, a Harry Truman of the C-suite: The buck stops here.

But according to The New York Times, the buck was about to embark on an Oh, the Places You’ll Go! journey to the bottom of the Earth. Sandberg oversaw the company’s bizarre damage-control efforts. It was an old-school, dirty-tricks campaign, combined with the unimaginable power of Facebook. That campaign included hiring “a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros,” and lobbying “a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

Excuse me—Facebook did what?

But more interesting is the way that Sandberg deployed some of her personal power. In Lean In, we were power-posing, assuming male levels of self-confidence, asking for the big money and knowing we deserved it. But when The Daily Mail attempted to publish something unflattering about Sandberg’s then-boyfriend, the Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, she seemed more like the head cheerleader standing up for the captain of the football team. On two separate occasions she is said to have contacted The Daily Mail and successfully kept the information out of the paper. (The source of the critical story recanted some of it, and Sandberg denied pressuring the paper, The Wall Street Journal reported.)

(Look, I fully understand that as the result of this article, I’m going to wake up next to a horse’s head, and all I ask is that it not be one of the weeks when I’m using the paisley sheets.)

Now we learn that Meta has been investigating Sandberg for possible misuse of company resources. The Wall Street Journal reported that some of her colleagues think she may have broken Securities and Exchange Commission rules by having Facebook employees work on her pet projects. These include her Lean In foundation; her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy; and even her upcoming wedding, to a consultant named Tom Bernthal. (The Journal reported that a Meta spokesperson declined to comment and that a spokesperson for Sandberg denied that she had inappropriately used company resources in connection with her wedding.)

I should have left well enough alone, but I couldn’t help myself, and I Googled the fiancé’s company’s website, which reads, “From Manila to London we help Facebook with their most pressing Communications and global Brand Strategy challenges.” So this is a match made in heaven.

(It’s going to be my own head bleeding out on the sheets, I realize now. Will have to pin a note to my pillow reminding the night caller of what Michael Clayton said: “I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy!”)

One lesson I learned in the Berkeley of my 1960s and ’70s youth has never failed me: Huge corporations are never, ever on the side of the people. You can’t take your eyes off of them for a second, because any time you look away, they’ll do terrible things, like make napalm (Dow Chemical) or Agent Orange (Monsanto), or get desperately impoverished women in developing countries to use expensive baby formula instead of breastfeeding (Nestlé).

Today’s young people have been forced to learn that old lesson, because they are the inheritors of 40 years of corporate greed, private equity’s smash and grab, bank deregulation, and the collusion of the very rich and the U.S. government to squeeze every penny it can from the middle class and move it into the counting houses of billionaires. They know the game isn’t rigged against them; they know the game was lost long before they were born.

Corporations are now faced with labor shortages, and there are rumblings from the owner class about the demise of the great American work ethic. But corporations are the ones who killed it. Young people today know that work is not your life; it’s how you pay for your life. It’s an exchange of money for labor, and they are not interested in devoting a jot of extra energy to jobs that pay minimum wage and offer no health insurance or savings plan, for employers who show no loyalty to their workers.

These are signs that a real labor movement may be growing in this country. Here’s another old lesson from my misspent youth: If workers organize, they become more powerful than the men—or, lean in!, women—who own the companies.

So farewell to Sheryl Sandberg. But maybe her departure is finally the moment to answer the question Time magazine asked me so long ago: What about the children?

I’ve heard a number of young people lately say they won’t have children because of the climate crisis. That’s a tremendous sacrifice and a principled position. A Pew Research Center survey from November found that 44 percent of adults without kids say that they probably won’t have any, up from 37 percent in 2018, the last time Pew asked the question. But often when you talk with these young people, after the climate comes a whole lot of reasons the choice isn’t a sacrifice at all. Children seem like a hassle, and an impediment to a fun life.

To them I say, Hold on. That’s the corporation speaking, which seeks to cleave you from human experience and sees you only as a worker, a unit of production. That’s the corporate demand that you lean in to work and lean away from your family. “For some women, a career is their baby,” said Business Insider, in its article on the Pew results.

Staying home with very small children—Jesus Christ! There’s no way to explain the amount of labor, tedium, and occasional desperation it includes. Especially if you also work from home. Nothing is going right, the kids are running around, and you really can be brought to tears by mud tracked across a clean kitchen floor. Nothing to recommend it on that front.

But here’s the thing. Ask any older person when the happiest time in their life was, and they will always, always say it was when their children were young.

A few weeks ago I came up with the absurd project of digitizing all of the photographs of my children taken from the pre-iPhone half of their lives. I bought the scanner, and the cord to attach it to my computer. I hauled up the cardboard boxes and opened one—and the whole endeavor stalled out.

My children, thank God, are healthy young men living their adult lives—they are twins, 24 years old. But when I opened the box, I saw the faces of those little boys who aren’t here anymore, the ones who lived with me in the dreamtime of early childhood. My husband worked, I stayed home, and five long days a week we did things I knew they would never remember. Like the first time they heard the music of an ice-cream truck. I bought them each a Pokémon popsicle, and here’s the mind-blowing thing: They had no idea what was inside those wrappers until I took them off. When I gave them those astonishing, perplexing, never-before-seen popsicles (“My popsicle is raining,” one of them said in confusion when it started dripping), they looked at me the way they often did in the dreamtime: as though I was the most wonderful, and kind, and important person in the whole world. In the corporation of their love, I was at the top of the power structure.

There is no greater joy in this life than having a baby. Here is a person who has been uniquely designed to love you. And here is Goldman Sachs.