It’s been five years since Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, published her manifesto, Lean In, urging women not to sell themselves short at work or doubt their ability to balance a family with a career. Though controversial, the book was a mega-bestseller, selling more than four million copies. It spawned a mini empire, with 40,000 mentoring circles and annual campaigns, and turned Sandberg into a celebrity executive: the face of a new brand of professional feminism.
Lean In was published when Sandberg was 43, and capped her impressive rise in the professional world. She began her career working closely with her mentor, Larry Summers, who taught her at Harvard. She worked with him at the World Bank and, later, at the Treasury Department. From there she went to Google, where she led the company’s online advertising efforts. In 2007, Sandberg met Mark Zuckerberg at a Christmas party, and he convinced her to jump ship.
The Facebook founder tasked Sandberg with a daunting goal: Make the company profitable. It took her just two years to do so. In 2017, Facebook made in $40 billion in advertising revenue, and today the company’s market capitalization is $400 billion. Sandberg also brought a corporate professionalism to the company. If Zuckerberg was the baby-faced tech visionary, Sandberg was lead adult in the room, taking care of Facebook’s economic and political needs. She has been so successful that she was rumored to be the frontrunner to lead the Treasury Department if Hillary Clinton had become president.
That sterling reputation took a serious blow this week. A report from The New York Times shows that, while Sandberg was building her global brand, she was using aggressive and underhanded tactics at Facebook. As the company faced increasing criticism and pressure over its handling of fake news, election interference, data abuse, and the incitement of ethnic violence and genocide, she embraced a strategy to suppress information about Facebook’s problems, discredit its critics, and deflect blame onto its competitors. She berated her security chief for being honest about the extent of the Russian campaign on the site. And she employed multiple crisis PR firms that spread fake news as a defense tactic, in one instance tying critics to the liberal billionaire, George Soros, a frequent subject of anti-semitic abuse online.