Sheryl Sandberg’s girlboss fantasy did nothing for women

Sheryl Sandberg
The ‘girlboss fantasy’ has eroded - AFP/Getty Images

Has Sheryl Sandberg finally taken her “foot off the gas”? Sandberg, the former CEO of Facebook, effectively Mark Zuckerberg’s number two, is now stepping down from the board of Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

This is the woman who told us in 2010 that there were not enough women in the boardroom or female business leaders because they had faltered or not taken enough risks in their career whereas “Men are just ‘foot on the gas pedal’. We’re not going to close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap”.

This message, delivered in a TED talk, went onto become the best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in 2013. The Lean In philosophy, which in retrospect may as well have been called ‘How to be Sheryl Sandberg’ for a while became massively popular. Not only did the book sell millions, Lean In circles were formed where women advised other women on how to get on.

‘Leaning in’ is a kind of trickle-down view of women’s rights from someone at the very top. Sandberg advises women to take risks, take the initiative, stop being afraid, not to care so much about likeability and not “to compromise our career goals to make room for partners who may not even exist yet”.

It advises, as did all the self-empowerment books of the era, that women needed to believe in themselves as individuals. We needed to step up as well as lean in, be a bit more ‘can do’ to get promoted. Even in 2010, a lot of this seemed like some corporate wish fulfilment and little to do with the lives of most working women.

Sheryl Sandberg
In 2012, Sheryl Sandberg became the first woman to serve on Facebook’s board of directors - AP Photo/Thibault Camus

I come, after all, from a generation where colleagues were using breast pumps in the office loos as there was nowhere else to go, having rushed back to work so as not to get demoted while they were on maternity leave.

Often, I have had to tell male co-workers who have children that it is half-term as they have no idea. I have told the lies that mothers tell, when their children are ill or their childcare has fallen through.

It is no surprise to me that many younger women reject that lifestyle or decide that if they want brilliant careers, kids will get in the way. When we look at falling birth rates across the world, we ought to be taking some of this into consideration instead of preaching homilies about the virtues of marriage.

Sandberg herself got married at 24 which is somehow typical of her efficiency. That part of her life was sorted and, while she sprinkles the book with anecdotes about her own vulnerability, she really comes from another world. That world is very traditional and the US remains one of the few countries without mandated maternity leave, though to be fair Sandberg has always advocated for paid parental leave.

Yet, while Sandberg makes the right noises about equality, Lean In is really telling women to market themselves as singularly effective rather than collectively questioning workplace practices. It is all about adapting to how men run things rather than any challenge to it.

Sheryl Sandberg
Suzanne Moore: ‘Sandberg has fallen from grace as a feminist icon only for those who saw her as one in the first place’ - AFP/Getty Images

She was also doing this from the point of view of a billionaire. Her guidance was lapped up, even though she was immensely privileged.

No wonder Zuckerberg spent six weeks wooing her with dinners to get her to work for him in 2007. He told The New Yorker that Sandberg “handles things I don’t want to”. Wow. Well, that is a women’s role at home and at work, isn’t it? The girlboss fantasy began to erode somewhat.

Internalising discrimination and blaming yourself for not overcoming it had its limits. Women of colour, in particular, said they had “leaned in” forever and it was not getting them into boardrooms.

While pushing her own book in 2018, Michele Obama was indeed forthright in front of a Brooklyn audience, “That whole, ‘so you can have it all’. Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that s–t doesn’t work all the time.”

Michelle Obama's memoir, 'Becoming', has broken sales records in the US
Michelle Obama pointed out that it's ‘not always enough’ to lean in - Getty Images/Getty Images

While Sandberg’s message to women no longer reverberated so strongly, she made shareholders extremely rich. If that is all that matters, then her success is huge but at what cost? Facebook grew by exploiting personal data and selling it on.

Instagram is designed to produce envy and feelings of exclusion especially in young people. Many blame Facebook’s algorithms for promoting hate speech and all kinds of disinformation yet Facebook refuses any regulation in its pursuit of profit.

According to The New York Times, Sandberg was involved in trying to hide the fact that the Russians were trying to use the platform to influence the 2016 presidential election. Sandberg later apologised to the American people for the way Facebook handled Russia’s interference in the election.

In the wake of #Metoo, Sandberg’s Lean In seems oblivious of structural issues around sexual harassment or gender bias.

It seems very much of its time, selling the all-American dream and part of that dream means that if only women were a bit more like men, they too could be wealthy and successful.

Sheryl Sandberg discussing the challenges facing women in the workplace in 2013
Sheryl Sandberg discussing the challenges facing women in the workplace in 2013 - Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Sandberg has fallen from grace as a feminist icon only for those who saw her as one in the first place. Most of us just saw her vision of atomised free market ambition as applicable only to the very few.

Rights to maternity pay or more “family friendly” practices at work have come about from solid organisation and regulation; a recognition that gender equality is far off and everyone has to work towards it.

To add this to the to-do list of the average working and exhausted mother is unfair. We have leaned in so far, we are falling over. It is without a doubt though, that in the higher stratosphere of the metaverse, Sandberg’s teachings have indeed worked – for Sheryl Sandberg.

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