It was always going to be tricky to have a feminist movement led by a billionaire corporate executive. Now jabs at Sandberg, Facebook's No. 2, make some crowds cheer.
The door to the Lean In office in Palo Alto, California, has Sheryl Sandberg’s name on it. The email addresses for Lean In employees bear her initials. And millions of dollars in funding every year for the women’s empowerment organization comes from her.
But inside, surrounded by wall art reminding women to be bold, the Lean In staff has a singular message: Sandberg now has little to do with the group she founded.
“I don’t want to take anything away — how could I? — from Sheryl as the inspiration for the work that we do,” said Rachel Thomas, the president of LeanIn.org. “But the book came out six years ago. It’s become less and less about Sheryl with every passing year.”
The sentiment extends beyond Silicon Valley. “Sheryl’s not really Lean In,” said Emily Schwarz, who runs Lean In Atlanta, a group of about 2,000. “We are Lean In.”
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This is a startling change for an organization that still has Sandberg’s face pop up when you scroll over the About Us tab on its website; as recently as October, she was the lead author of a Lean In-branded essay in The Wall Street Journal. It coincides with a radical shift in perception of Sandberg in her day job, as Facebook’s chief operating officer.
In recent weeks, Sandberg’s work at Facebook has been the subject of damaging headlines, from her slow response to Russian manipulation of Facebook to the way her team went on the attack against critics. Pundits have called on her to resign. Now, the Lean In movement is trying to figure out how independent it can actually become from the Sheryl Sandberg brand.
Sandberg’s workplace feminism revival began with her 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Research she popularized at the time — about how women do not negotiate as strongly as men do for raises, about how posing like Superwoman in the bathroom can help women stand more authoritatively for a presentation — is now mainstream. Her phrases became part of the lexicon.
But it was always going to be tricky to have a feminist movement led by a billionaire corporate executive. Now jabs at Sandberg make some crowds cheer. “It’s not always enough to lean in,” Michelle Obama said onstage in Brooklyn this month, while promoting her memoir. Using an expletive, Obama added that Lean In stuff “doesn’t work all the time.”
For Sandberg, 49, none of this was the plan. She was widely expected to leave Facebook after the 2016 election and work for President Hillary Clinton, perhaps as secretary of the Treasury. When Clinton lost, Sandberg continued at the company just as it became engulfed in crises.
After an initial interview, Thomas emailed to say Sandberg remains “a driving force behind all we do” and has for years discussed making her own brand less central to Lean In. Through a Facebook spokeswoman, Sandberg declined to comment.
Taking some hits for ‘corporate feminism’
Lean In inspired outrage from the start.
On the left, critics panned Sandberg’s advice as only for other wealthy white women and said it ignored structural problems in society. On the right, a chorus tried to argue that the gender wage gap was exaggerated, and a cottage industry of writers emerged to fight ideas she popularized, like the concept of microaggressions.
But Sandberg’s message largely won over the feminist mainstream, and she became one of its iconic leaders. According to the organization, more than 40,000 Lean In Circles now meet regularly around the world, from Fremont County, Wyoming, to New Delhi and Paris.
Some were drawn to Lean In exactly because of Sandberg’s business success. They wanted more economic power, and here was a mother of two who had figured it out and whom they could aspire to be like.
“You’re looking at someone who’s in Silicon Valley, a billionaire, one of the most powerful people in the world,” said Julene Allen, describing why she founded Lean In Dayton in Ohio. “How can I be more influential?”
Yet as Sandberg’s wealth and fame grew — movie stars and other celebrities began showing up at her parties — she started losing the support of some in her tight-knit Silicon Valley community. And Facebook began confronting concerns that it was a harmful force in society. After the 2016 election, the social network was revealed to have played a role in distributing Russian propaganda to Americans, stoking genocidal rage in countries like Myanmar and disrupting elections around the world.
That tipped the delicate balance of having a corporate leader as a feminist leader.
“I no longer [subscribe] to her view of corporate feminism as a heroic thing,” said Katherine Goldstein, who hosts a podcast, Double Shift, about working moms. “Its inherent message is that corporations and workplaces are basically benevolent and good.”
Amy Westervelt, whose book “Forget ‘Having It All’: How America Messed Up Motherhood — and How to Fix It,” came out in November, said Sandberg had made bringing more women into the workplace a priority over changing the structure of workplaces.
“All people in power have potential to be corrupted by it, and women are no different,” Westervelt said. “Your social movement can’t be led by a CEO or the COO.”
A thought leader and a possible candidate for president
When I attended a few Lean In Circle meetings in 2013 and 2014, most of us had Sandberg’s book — with her face on the cover — on our laps.
Her life story inspired us, a group of mid-20s professionals in San Francisco confronting workplace challenges for the first time. And I found the advice, like to stop insulting my own work and to not be afraid of being disliked, useful.
The manifesto, which was full of intimate anecdotes, made Sandberg a household name. It took her out of simply being Facebook’s No. 2 and reframed her as a thought leader and, many fans thought, a potential candidate for president.
In Silicon Valley, Sandberg became the social nexus for a collective of powerful women who met regularly for dinners at her house. At the events, she often invited a guest of honor and did a casual interview, the two in armchairs in front of 30 or so female guests who held plates on their laps.
Lean In remained a core outlet for Sandberg, too. She contributed essays about women in the workplace and other topics to The Journal and The New York Times. She spoke regularly about women at work, and her Facebook feed was full of news about Lean In.
Today, the staff of Lean In works in the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation office, which is named after her and her husband, who died in 2015. Sandberg still hosts Lean In Circle leaders at her house.
But what has changed is that some of those leaders and even friends of Sandberg’s are playing down her role and positioning her as a peripheral character to the movement.
“From the very beginning, Sheryl drew people in,” said Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at Stanford and a co-director of the university’s Executive Program in Women’s Leadership. “But I don’t think of her as all that central to what’s happening right now.”
Alexa Crisa, a digital strategist who leads Lean In Atlanta alongside Schwarz, told me: “We don’t work at Facebook. We work with Lean In. We only ever even mention who Sheryl is to explain why her experience is relevant to women. That’s where it ends to us in terms of the mention of Sheryl.”
Allen, in Dayton, said, “We’ve taken this thing, and we’re driving it.”
These women were ones Lean In suggested I call.
Most anyone not on its list had a different take. Gia Punjabi, a senior finance analyst at Levi Strauss & Co., founded a Lean In Circle in San Francisco in August 2017. She said that she had noticed a recent drop in interest and that she suspected it was tied to Sandberg’s changing brand.
“At the end of the day, Lean In is something that’s integrated with Sheryl’s name,” Punjabi said. “You can’t know one without the other.”
Sandberg has her defenders, some of whom post on public Facebook pages with the hashtag #IStandBySheryl. And Sandberg has been engaging directly with women on the platform. “Sharon — thank you for being a voice on the importance of 50/50 relationships for women,” she wrote to a user who had shared a Forbes essay headlined “The Sheryl Sandberg Bashing Explained.”
Many in Sandberg’s corner argue that the news coverage of her role at Facebook has been unfair. They say it is sexist and focused more on Sandberg than on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive. Some I spoke with called the claims that she was involved in nefarious behavior false news.
“It’s starting to sound a little bit like a witch hunt,” said Nuala Murphy, the founder of Lean In Belfast in Northern Ireland and chief executive of Moment Health, a health technology startup.
Kathy Andersen, the executive director of the Women’s Fund Miami-Dade in Florida, said the media was trying to fool women into disavowing one of their advocates.
“Women are not fooled by the gender-biased teardown of Sheryl that’s happening,” Andersen said. “They’re fueled by it.”
The critical articles about Sandberg are rooted in sexism, said Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford and the director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
“Flawed people were involved in the civil-rights movement,” she said. “We don’t give up on a movement because people aren’t perfect.”
Visiting Lean In headquarters
One chilly day in November, I visited the Lean In office, in an open-air shopping center above a Bar Method in Palo Alto. There, I met Sandberg’s longtime friend Thomas, who led me past a “Proceed and Be Bold” sign and into a room called “People First.”
“Has Sheryl inspired a lot of what we do here? Of course,” Thomas said. “But it’s really grown way beyond Sheryl.”
She added that moving beyond Sandberg’s name was always the agenda for Lean In and was what Sandberg had wanted. (When I later called another founding member of the Lean In team, she laughed and disputed that characterization. Sandberg is the organization’s sole source of funding, and no other figures have stepped in to take her place.)
Thomas talked about what Lean In was doing now. The organization had published a fourth annual study with McKinsey called “Women in the Workplace” and has created a new workplace justice-oriented deck of cards called 52 Ways to Fight Bias. On the front of each card is a microaggression, like the female executive who is mistaken for a more junior figure; on the back is why it happened, why it matters and what to do.
We circled back to Sandberg’s work at Facebook. Wasn’t it always risky, I asked, to have someone leading such a large company also leading a movement fighting for workplace equality?
“I’m curious,” Thomas said. “You’re a smart, engaged woman on all of this — why is that hard for you?”
It’s hard, I replied, to reckon with the idea that we have taken life and career advice from someone who could be building something that’s not good for the world.
For a beat, Thomas sat silent and looked right at me.
She later brought up a study, which she wanted to make clear was apropos of nothing and was part of an “intellectual conversation” about how we perceive women in power who do something bad.
“Women candidates had an edge out of the gate because people assumed that women were more ethical,” she said. “But if women did something that was perceived as less ethical, the fall was —.”
Thomas stopped herself and did not finish the sentence.
She picked up again: “It was just interesting, the complexity around gender and expectations.”