Sheryl Sandberg is the most famous businesswoman in the world. As chief operating officer of Facebook – often dubbed the human face of Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth – she joined a company full of twentysomething tech bros in 2008 and turned it into a lucrative personalised-advertising machine. Under her tenure revenues soared from $777 million in 2009 to $117 billion in 2021 – she once said that she was “put on this planet to scale organisations”.
But that all came to an end. Earlier this month, Sandberg announced she was leaving Meta – the new name for Zuckerberg’s business empire – in (where else?) a Facebook post. Her boss chimed in afterwards, writing that it was “the end of an era”, in an apparently carefully choreographed exchange.
While Sandberg was, for years, nicknamed the founder’s “right-hand woman”, there have been rumours in recent times that a gulf had grown between the two. Much of the finger-pointing when it comes to Facebook’s controversies - the spread of disinformation, the 2016 US presidential election, questions over user data - seemed to go her way. Reports in the US media suggested that her power had declined, with fewer staff under her wing. “Sitting by Mark’s side for these 14 years has been the honour and privilege of a lifetime,” she pointedly wrote in her exit post.
Her rallying cry to women that they should “lean in” to their careers has also faced criticism.
So why is the woman who urged us all to lean in now leaning out herself? And what’s next?
At 52, Sandberg is hardly over the hill. Yet a UK survey recently found that, despite the economy being awash with vacancies, women over 45 are finding it particularly tough to get rehired after losing their jobs in the pandemic. Is she just another midlife woman forced out of a corporate role by gendered ageism? Or is this an example of a high-powered woman choosing to refocus her life? That same rumour mill has gone into overdrive.
“It’s definitely been a hectic two days,” she says in an exclusive interview. “I’m tired, my chief of staff is tired – but we are getting through it.”
It is not the first time we have spoken. I flew to California to interview her just before the pandemic brought the shutters down on the world. Silicon Valley always sounds glamorous, but the mighty Meta campus reminded me of an Ikea, all blue reflective glass and endless car parks; much of Palo Alto is an industrial suburb not unlike Slough, just with better weather. The office is so huge that employees use bicycles to get from one end to the other and even Sandberg and Zuckerberg sat at workstations on the open floor – no corner offices for them.
Just as that interview was published, I was made redundant from my own corporate job of 23 years. In the aftermath, Sandberg not only stayed in touch but supported my campaign to change the narrative about the lives and careers of older women. After all, why are men seen to to get better with every passing year while women are viewed like peaches – one wrinkle and you are out?
It’s not unfair to say that Sandberg does not sound her normal self. When we’ve talked before she was almost superhumanly fluent and well-briefed. This conversation is punctuated by long and uncharacteristic pauses.
So what happened, I ask. Why have you decided to leave?
“Well, it’s not one thing or one day,” she replies. “I’m 14 years into what was going to be a five-year job. A job I took thinking it would last five years that went on.....”
There is a long pause. “You and I have talked before about how women face steeper challenges at every stage. Early in their career they are told they shouldn’t go for big jobs if they want to have kids, or they are told that if they do take a big job they won’t stay in it very long because of kids. And there is a lot of age discrimination that hits women at this stage, you know... ageism hits women harder than men.”
Sandberg was famously dubbed middle-aged at the tender age of 35, when she first started at Facebook. There are vanishingly few older female executives in the tech world. Her departure leaves a very male leadership team behind.
So why leave now, when she was vocally relishing the challenges to come when we last met?
“Well, there’s no clear beginning or end to the advertising business, no beginning or end to the metaverse,” she says, opaquely.
That is, of course, true. But there has been a growing sense that Sandberg was surplus to requirements on the Metaverse project, which is Zuckerberg’s new baby; he is said to be “throwing the farm” at all things virtual reality and her departure consolidates his own power, as he will take on many of the people who used to report to her.
“I am very focused on creating a smooth transition,” Sandberg says firmly. “I’m proud of the team we’ve built. I’m proud of the fact that Mark...”, she corrects herself, “... that I was able to make this decision... that I talked to Mark, that we announced it very quickly. And that we are leaving so many strong people in place. I am focusing on the transition until autumn and then I am going to take a breath and focus more on women, philanthropy and take a pause and think about what I am going to do next.”
So is this her making peace with her corporate career? Is this the end of the line for her as an executive? Or is she hoping for a next stage?
There is another pause. “I don’t know,” she says. “I would say ‘never say never’. I, of all people, know that you never know what life will bring.”
Some commentators say Sandberg is wise to get out now: the Meta share price has plummeted (Zuckerberg has said it might take 10 years for the Metaverse to make a profit); Facebook’s user numbers have declined for the first time as young eyeballs are being attracted to TikTok; growth is sluggish on both Facebook and Instagram.
Former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has been installed as Zuckerberg’s mouthpiece (a role that used to be Sandberg’s) and factotum of government relations (that also used to be Sandberg’s territory as a former Washington insider). Zuckerberg and Sandberg are also said to have been at odds over content moderation – with him taking a “publish and be damned” attitude, while she was more worried about some of the damaging effects of polarising speech and trolls.
From this conversation, however, I’m left with the impression that personal reasons were a big driver: “This is a wonderful, wonderful job but not one that leaves time and space for many other things... it really isn’t,” she says, with feeling. The move should be taken in the context of a whole new spring in Sandberg’s personal life.
When we met before the pandemic she girlishly gushed about how excited she was to have fallen in love again after her former husband, Dave Goldberg, had died suddenly in 2015. She admitted that she had asked her new partner, marketing CEO Tom Bernthal (they were set up by Goldberg’s brother), to marry her because “women shouldn’t wait to be asked, we need to get on with planning our lives”.
Next month, Sandberg will finally wed Bernthal after the pandemic forced a long pause in their wedding plans. Their blended family boasts five teenagers; a big shift for any woman.
And let’s not forget that as well as a massive job at Facebook, she wrote Lean In, a 2013 bestselling book that encouraged women to push themselves forward at work, and set up the Lean In Foundation which now runs 60,000 “circles” (to fire up female ambition) in 189 countries.
Not that her message of female empowerment has aged well, coming in for serious flack in the last few years – mainly that it was advice for other wealthy, white women.
In 2018, Michelle Obama told an audience: “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s-- doesn’t work all the time” and I recall writing an article saying that many of us felt we were leaning in so far we were practically horizontal.
Yet Sandberg has always been practical and passionate, attempting to address that criticism around diversity through the work of her foundation. Her maxims – “done is better than perfect”; “don’t leave before you leave” (about women scaling back the moment they decide to have a baby) and “take your seat at the table” – are good mantras for all working women.
But maybe even Sandberg is now realising that having it all can also mean doing it all – and there’s a limit to what any of us can take. It’s no coincidence that, post-pandemic, working women are experiencing record levels of burnout.
She also wrote another book, the surprisingly moving Option B, about her grief in the wake of Goldberg’s death, which happened in Mexico, when he was just 48, and left her the single mother of two children. Meta is certainly not the only tune in her songbook.
“Sheryl’s move shows that women are not just our jobs,” explains her friend Arianna Huffington, 71, co-founder of The Huffington Post and an expert voice on burnout. “When you have a big job like she had, there is a temptation to identify yourself with it and when you give it up, you don’t know who you are. So many women overstay in those jobs, long after they are fulfilling, because our own identity becomes so tied up with the status of the job.
“Sheryl is being very brave. This is her decision. She is moving into the next stage of her life. She has so many new beginnings at the moment - new husband, new family. And she has always been so much more than her Facebook job, the books, Lean In.”
This happily chimes with what Sandberg tells me herself.
“I really want to do more with my foundation; I need to put time and space into helping women,” she says. “This is such a critically important time - the pandemic has led to 40 per cent of women considering quitting their jobs, there are such high rates of burnout. I want to give myself the time and the space to turbocharge my work on all of that. I mean, when I wrote Lean In, there were five female FTSE 500 CEOs and now there are eight - given women have been getting 50 per cent of degrees for decades now, we’d all hoped for more change than that. I really want to be a powerful force in driving that shift.”
Sandberg and I have spoken often about that urge for a change in midlife; about how, in our 50s, we have reached a new flex point with the overwhelming urge to do something different. Of the drumbeat of time. Of there being more of life under the bridge than there is to come. Of shifting priorities and choices. The sense that if we want to do something different, we have to get on and do it now.
“You and I have talked a lot about life stages and transitions,” Sandberg says, “and the burden that women carry around life stages and children – and of course at this stage in our lives around caring for our parents, too.”
There is another pause. “People keep asking me if there is another reason. But there is no big story...”
Her voice sounds hoarse with emotion. And then maybe we get to the crux of things. “My mother-in-law passed away. We went to her funeral...,” she says. “You know, what I mean is that it is definitely a moment – a moment of realising that there are these days and these transitions. That life....” She pauses again. “Really Eleanor, there isn’t one thing that drove this decision. Just life.”
I know what she means. As do so many other women. “It is a different world now,” agrees Huffington. “Women move into their prime in midlife, we don’t need to look over our shoulder for approval, we can do what we want. Sheryl can model that onward shift into a new phase for a whole generation of Queenagers.”
This is our new moniker for women in midlife – masters of our own destinies rather than walking hot flushes. This is how Sandberg wants us to see her shift: “I love this new narrative around older women and what we are capable of becoming,” she says. “I’m proud to be a Queenager.”
The Daily Telegraph