In the internet era, Sheryl Sandberg appeared to be the archetype for the modern woman. The Facebook chief operating officer seemed to have cracked the glass ceiling by becoming one of the most influential players in Silicon Valley, named to the Time 100 annual list of the most influential people in the world. In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sandberg urged women to break down the societal and personal barriers to women’s progress by taking leadership positions. Like Barack Obama, whose administration she advised, she seemed to personify the idea that sexism and the other isms could be a thing of the past.
But according to a new book, even Sandberg has fallen prey to the infamous glass ceiling. The book, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, aims to attack the company for its inability to stop the spread of misinformation. The books’ authors Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang argue that features such as polarization, ideological silos, and outrage escalation were designed into the application under the leadership of Sandberg as part of her mission to monopolize Facebook users’ attention. This scheme allowed Facebook to charge advertisers excessive rates to communicate with consumers obsessed with their emotionally charged newsfeed. Thus, generating exorbitant profits.
An undercurrent of the book tells of Sandberg’s increasing marginalization at Facebook. Much as the Trump presidency revealed that the promised post-racial society had yet to materialize, it also laid bare the continuing toll sexism takes upon women’s progress.
The book describes how Sandberg, an active Democrat who had unabashedly supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, found herself marginalized as Facebook sought a way to blunt the new President’s attacks. Trump loved Facebook and its social-media peer Twitter for the ability these platforms provided him to communicate directly with his supporters. At the same time, he feared the power of these organizations since they had the power to turn off his bully pulpit. So, he threatened and bullied them into keeping the spigot open.
The book seems to imply that Sandberg was hampered in this mission by her Democratic renown, since Trump, from the beginning, did not want to associate with people who were not supporters. “Everybody in this room has to like me,” President-elect Trump announced at a meeting Sandberg attended shortly after the election. Everybody knew that Clinton-supporter Sandberg was not a fan.
But Sandberg did her best to make nice with the new administration. She hired Republican operative Joel Kaplan and tasked him with making inroads. Ultimately, Facebook CEO and Sandberg’s boss Mark Zuckerberg established a relationship with the new president. After their first meeting, which had been kept secret, Trump tweeted a picture of the two of them grinning and shaking hands. “Nice meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of @Facebook in the Oval Office today,” read Trump’s caption.
Despite characterizations of their work relationship as a partnership, Zuckerberg was still the boss and Sandberg, his employee.
The book glosses over why Zuckerberg was able to befriend Trump so quickly while Sandberg struggled. I’d be willing to bet that he had an advantage Sandberg could never compete with: a penis. Trump might be America’s foremost unapologetic misogynist, a characteristic his supporters love in him. Perhaps the highly-educated and well-spoken woman without any blonde highlights in her hair or plastic surgeries to her frame intimidated Trump on a subconscious level. But Zuckerberg was one of the boys, someone the pussy-grabber could relate to.
The rapidity in which Sandberg was marginalized underscored a sad reality. Despite characterizations of their work relationship as a partnership, Zuckerberg was still the boss and Sandberg, his employee. When the chips were down, Sandberg would only be allowed to rise so far. Just as her candidate Hillary Clinton was denied the top job, so too would be Sandberg.
Sadly, this is not the first time Sandberg found herself in this position. In her previous job as vice-president of Google, she saw other, less productive colleagues promoted while she remained stalled. For that reason and Zuckerberg’s promise to treat her as a partner, she decamped to Facebook to work for a man fifteen years her junior and lacking her educational pedigree. How frustrating it must have been to find herself in the same situation again.
Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending, at least not yet. We must replace the white male patriarchy that dominates our institutions. Until then, misogyny and racism will perpetually relegate women, BIPOC, and other oppressed groups to second-class citizenship. If billionaire Harvard M.B.A. Sandberg can be marginalized at a company she leads, what does it mean to other women? No amount of leaning in can change that.