One of the biggest pieces of news out of the tech world is the departure of Meta’s Chief Operations Officer, Sheryl Sandberg. Joining Meta (then Facebook) at a moment when the company was seeking to evolve from a punchy startup to a mature, sustained technology enterprise. Sandberg was successful, making Facebook profitable in the process and positioning her as one of the most visible women in the tech industry.
Sandberg will remain on the Board of Directors but is leaving her role as COO. Her departure from Meta is, in a word, complicated. Articles are streaming out about her legacy, including questions of resource allocations and whether she has done enough to increase the number of women in executive roles. I wanted to share some of my own thoughts on Sandberg, her work, and why it’s so exhausting to place superhuman expectations on employees of diverse backgrounds.
Her first book, Lean In, was characterized as tone-deaf and leveraging the privilege afforded to a white woman of means (a criticism that Sandberg acknowledged). I first read Lean In when I was still in the financial services industry, searching for a breakout into something more fulfilling. I was disappointed that there wasn’t much that she wrote that I could apply to my own life. There’s a range of challenges that women of color face when attempting to move inside of circles that are agnostic or outright hostile to their presence.
As someone who has gone through the traditional publishing process, I suspect Sandberg’s book dealt not only with her intent but the desires of the publishing company to leverage Sandberg’s status as a prominent female CEO. When I wrote Women of Color in Tech, I did not want to position my book as the ultimate guide for women of color, because I knew that was not something I alone could fulfill. Instead, I wanted to write the book that I wanted and needed when I faced a professional crossroads. I am certain that queer women of color and those who are differently-abled may find Women of Color in Tech lacking in certain aspects. I hope that’s an opportunity to advance the conversation (and for me personally, as a growth opportunity), as inclusion is an evolving process.
When it comes to dealing with challenges related to privilege and position, Sandberg is also drawing criticism. A few months ago, Sandberg attempted to kill a story about her former boyfriend, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. The inability to exercise accountability, particularly at the highest levels, has significant consequences for those with limited power and resources; in the case of Activision, these are employees who faced harassment. I won’t suggest that Sandberg didn’t face a thorny dilemma in whether she should support someone she had a close relationship with who facilitated problematic behavior. But Sandberg’s inability to empathize with both parties while still advocating for transparency ultimately proved to be the wrong decision.
The work of another corporate executive comes to mind. Ginni Rometty pushed for greater inclusion efforts at all levels of IBM. While the process itself may have had mixed results, and there are broader questions about her overall legacy, the effort exhibited by someone in their position matters. That’s what I reflect on most when it comes to Sheryl Sandberg’s work at Meta. There is still an opportunity to use her nonprofit and other ventures to address the criticism she’s faced during her time at Meta. We all have opportunities to make an impact in the spaces we control. How we decide to respond to those opportunities will determine how inclusive tech spaces—and tech products—will ultimately be.