Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Ten years ago, Sheryl Sandberg was on top of the world.
Facebook had just gone public, making Sandberg a billionaire. She had played a major role in creating that wealth. In 2007, the company’s revenue was around $150 million. The next year, Sandberg joined Facebook. By 2011, its revenue was more than $3.7 billion.
While she reveled in the company’s success, it was not the only project she cared about. She had recently begun to speak about the challenges women faced in the corporate world, and had landed on a solution: Women needed to seize more leadership opportunities and advocate more forcefully for themselves, an act she called “leaning in.”
Sandberg, who announced on Wednesday that she would be stepping down as COO of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, packaged her corporate-feminist philosophy into the 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” which she co-authored with writer Nell Scovell. The book fit in well with her work at Facebook, capturing the sense of bootstrapping optimism that dominated US corporate and political culture during the Obama years.
A decade later, Sandberg’s reputation has lost some of the luster it acquired in those heady days when “Lean In” debuted at the top of the best-seller lists. Facebook, tarnished by a series of scandals as well as major questions about its business model, has gone from being seen as Silicon Valley golden child to dystopian Big Brother. And intersectional feminism and the #MeToo movement have made the ideas in “Lean In” seem naïve at best.
As tempting as it might be to reduce Sandberg’s career to a hero-turned-villain story, it is far more useful as a guide to American culture and politics in the years between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s. In those two decades of head-spinning optimism, leaders like Sandberg became convinced that liberals could harness capitalism, using it to make themselves fabulously wealthy while also making the world a fairer, more just place. Their failures highlight the limits, if not the delusion, of that vision.
In the early 1990s, Sandberg joined her mentor Larry Summers at the World Bank, where he had just been hired as the chief economist. There, she worked on health projects in India, including leprosy and AIDS. She rejoined Summers in the late 1990s when he served as secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, where she focused on issues of international debt relief as a way of stabilizing developing nations during the Asian financial crisis. It was a set of experiences that suggested financial institutions could do more than generate wealth – they could do good.
From there she joined Google, a rapidly-growing corporation that described its internal ethos with the phrase, “Don’t be evil.” Though a bare-minimum ethical commitment, Google’s “don’t be evil” motto captured the techno-utopianism coursing through Silicon Valley in the 2000s.
As developers created what are now the core companies structuring the way we use the internet, some company leaders saw an opportunity to rethink the way corporations worked. Not only would their offices be flexible and fun, but their companies would make the world a better place, without all the negative aspects that had defined corporate America for more than a century: labor abuses, manipulative practices, profit-over-people decision-making.
That belief in progressive corporations practicing ethical capitalism created an aura around Silicon Valley in the 2000s. No wonder the 2008 Obama campaign, which likewise believed old institutions could be remade by visionary young progressives, eagerly tapped into companies like Facebook. Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes left Facebook to join the campaign, which would be the first to make effective use of social media to organize its supporters.
After Barack Obama won the presidency, his administration retained ties with Facebook. Sandberg joined Obama’s advisory council on jobs, which brought her into contact with the president. Both she and Obama were institutionalists, believing that they could reform institutions with their ideas, their innovation, and the very fact of their presence in those institutions: Sandberg, the rare woman leader in Silicon Valley, and Obama, the first Black president.
Both also faced significant criticism from people who saw their institutionalism as an overly optimistic analysis of the problems facing society. For Sandberg, this came in the form of sharp reviews of “Lean In” by critics like bell hooks, who dismissed the lean-in idea as a form of “faux feminism” that propped up exclusionary capitalist systems. “Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns,” hooks wrote in 2013.
“Lean In” remained wildly popular during the Obama years, as did Facebook. But soon after Obama left office, the public began to sour on both. A New York Times investigation in 2018 discovered that leaders at Facebook, including Sandberg, had done little to stop Russian efforts to use the site to influence the 2016 US presidential election, despite being aware of the Russian campaign (at the time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pushed back, saying that Facebook had been slow to respond but was not as negligent as the New York Times report suggested). That same year, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, revealing that Facebook had been involved in a major data-harvesting controversy.
At the same time, the MeToo movement underscored the profound problems with suggesting women should stop focusing on how men thwart their advancement and instead focus on how they could work harder and more intentionally to advance their careers. Though MeToo focused on sexual harassment and sexual violence, it became part of a much broader conversation about intersectional feminism and the limits of the kind of corporate feminism Sandberg espoused.
The Obama administration, too, came in for renewed criticism during this period. The rise of Donald Trump and a radicalizing Republican Party made clear that Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship, compromise, and technocratic governance had been ill-suited to respond to the perceived mounting threat of illiberalism.
There is no need to rehearse all those threats, or all the flaws with Facebook or girl-boss feminism. Those ideas now seem lost to a distant past, remnants of a naïve, even innocent, era. Which is why it is important to take this moment to look at Sandberg’s career and recall the power of the promise of those years, as well as the critical flaws that ensured that promise would go unrealized.