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Sheryl Sandberg's legacy at Meta

Over her tenure, the company's reputation went from innovative but unproven to proven but controversial.

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  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

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Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta after 14 years as the second-most-powerful executive at the world’s largest social-media company. Her departure is a big shakeup for the firm, but those following Sandberg’s career may also say it’s been a long time coming.

Both Meta and Sandberg were dogged by controversy in the years following the 2016 US presidential election, with Sandberg in particular facing blowback over the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the spread of misinformation.

In the wake of these controversies, the balance of power within Meta reportedly shifted, as Zuckerberg assumed some duties he’d previously let Sandberg handle. That meant Sandberg receded from the limelight, particularly when compared with her prominence during the early-to-mid-2010s.

Sandberg says her immediate plans are to focus on her foundation, philanthropy (particularly around women’s issues), and her newly expanded family. But rumors persist that she may attempt to pivot to politics sometime in the future, or perhaps assume a CEO role at another big company.

Such speculation is inevitably shaped by gendered expectations and judgments. But her next chapter(s)—whether in politics, business, or philanthropy—will also be a data point on how the world now perceives tech companies and the people who run them.

“Her association with Big Tech was a huge plus for her years ago, when it was viewed as an unfettered force for good that was broadly beloved,” says Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. But as public sentiment toward Silicon Valley in general and Meta in particular has shifted, “her association with Facebook has become a bit of an albatross around her neck.”

Do voters want a candidate whose professional claim to fame is running one of the least trusted brands in America? Perhaps more interestingly, what does the corporate world think of that resume? There was a time when Silicon Valley experience was thought to be what every company needed. Is that still true?

For all its troubles, Meta’s stock has handily outperformed the market since going public in 2012. Back then the company was young and unproven, but enjoyed the reputation of bold innovator—as did the people running it. Today, the situation is reversed. No one can say Sandberg didn’t preside over a successful business. But her legacy at Meta is much more complicated.

A timeline of Sheryl Sandberg’s career

1991: Sandberg graduates with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University

1991-1993: She works for her mentor, Larry Summers, during his tenure as chief economist at the World Bank

1995: She graduates from Harvard Business School with her MBA

1995-1996: She goes to work for McKinsey & Company

1996-2001: She serves as Summers’s chief of staff in his roles as deputy Treasury secretary and Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton

2001-2008: She joins Google, where she eventually becomes vice president of global sales and online operations

2008: She joins Facebook (now Meta) as COO

2010: She delivers her viral TED talk, “Why we have too few women leaders”

2012: Facebook makes an initially disastrous stock-market debut

2013: Lean In is published and stays on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year

2017: Sandberg publishes Option B, her book with Adam Grant on coping with the death of her husband

2018: Public criticism of Sandberg mounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns over Russia’s use of Facebook to meddle in US elections

2022: She announces she’s leaving Meta

Charted

A chart shows Meta's stock outperforming the S&P 500 since 2012.
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What to watch for next

  1. Meta’s uncertain financial future. Mark Zuckerberg is going all-in on virtual reality, but it’s unclear how profitable the metaverse can be.
  2. Zuckerberg consolidates his power. Rather than appointing a new deputy, insiders say, Zuckerberg is positioning himself as the company’s sole leader.
  3. Meta’s sinking employee morale. The company’s employee satisfaction ratings are falling, and its recently instituted hiring freeze across several teams has some workers worried about the possibility of layoffs.
  4. Further news on Meta’s internal reviews of Sandberg. In addition to a company investigation into recent claims that Sandberg pressured the Daily Mail to kill a story on her ex, which Meta says has been resolved, the Wall Street Journal reports that the company was also looking into Sandberg’s use of corporate resources for her upcoming wedding. Meta says neither circumstance relates to Sandberg’s decision to leave.

Reassessing the legacy of Lean In

Lean In was a cultural phenomenon when it was published in 2013, forcing a broad conversation about the challenges that women faced in the workplace at a time when feminism was still a taboo topic in much of the corporate world. In the ensuing years, however, Sandberg came under scathing criticism for some of the book’s shortcomings, particularly when it came to tackling issues like race and class.

Today, the legacy of Lean In is mixed. It’s true that the book looks outdated in an era where the public conversation about gender inequality is far more progressive and nuanced. Sandberg herself has publicly copped to issues like overlooking the difficulties faced by single mothers in the book. The Lean In organization, meanwhile, has increasingly worked to focus on intersectionality and the importance of systemic (as opposed to individual) change in pushing for gender equality.

But Sandberg is still far more outspoken than many other women in business about issues like abortion rights. As Clark notes: “There are not that many women in the highest ranks of American executive power, and there’s even fewer women who have used their platform and bully pulpit to speak out around feminist issues the way that she has.”

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Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.

Best wishes for an empowered weekend,

—Sarah Todd (senior reporter, willing to bet that Sandberg has a political future)

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