How Sheryl Sandberg Lost Her Feminist Street Cred

The latest news about Facebook is a wake-up call that “leaning in” doesn’t mean doing right.

Sheryl Sandberg speaking
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Back in 2013, many women of a certain ideological stripe and geographic location (D.C., New York, or basically any big city) wanted to be just like a woman most of us had only recently heard of: Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.

With her blockbuster book, Lean In, she seemed to offer women a way—as long as we had nannies, an education, and smart biz-cazh attire—to finally get treated the way men do at the office.

The answer: It was on us. She had anodyne advice for being noticed: “Sit at the table,” literally. She had tips for tricking your boss into thinking you’re working harder than you are: “Holding my first and last meetings of the day in other buildings to make it less transparent when I was actually arriving and departing.”

She brought tough love, comparing women who (so tactlessly!) ask, “Are you my mentor?” to little hatchlings who ask, “Are you my mother?” in the eponymous children’s book. “When someone finds the right mentor,” she writes, “it is obvious.”

Some of it was, frankly, useful stuff. What career-driven woman wouldn’t want a job as powerful as second-in-command at Facebook? Who didn’t want to know how she did it?

Five years later, it’s hard to look up to Sandberg in quite the same, unvarnished way. The latest Facebook scandal comes from a New York Times report that, when backed into a corner during its recent privacy and election problems, “Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil-rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

According to The Times’ allegations, which Facebook has denied, Sandberg comes off looking more like just another executive shark than a feminist STEM star. As The Times puts it, “As evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Zuckerberg and Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.”

There have already been calls to regulate Facebook, and young people were already taking breaks from the app or deleting it entirely.

But Lean-In’s female-empowerment message has also been tainted by its messenger, something several people took to Twitter to point out:

Sandberg’s actions just don’t mesh with the girl-power clichés that pepper her book. As Molly Roberts put it in The Washington Post, “‘We can all hasten this change by committing ourselves both to seek—and speak—our truth,’ Sandberg writes. Fair enough. You first.”

If the Lean In star was already falling, this latest news may hasten that decline. My experience may be anecdotal, but I can’t remember the last time someone mentioned a Lean In circle, or even quoted the book unironically. Of course, few movements stay popular for five years running, and being busy professional women, we didn’t have time to stick to yet another self-improvement fad. (My Lean In circle disbanded just a few meetings after it began.)

Sandberg’s tips on how to put in 12-hour days with a newborn—start checking email at 5 a.m.—clash with today’s increasingly loud calls for parental-leave policies.

But part of it was, perhaps, women realizing something about the Sandbergian strain of feminism: Being a feminist doesn’t mean always behaving ethically. Someone wanting to get ahead doesn’t mean wanting you to rise, too. Leaning in doesn’t mean doing right.

Executive women are expected to be nice, but Sandberg never claimed she was. The point of Sandberg-style feminism is to be more powerful, and that, for better or worse, is what she is. This whole time, Sandberg was doing what was best for her company, protecting it at all costs. She was leaning in. We just couldn’t fathom what that might mean for the rest of us.