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Why Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s ‘adult in the room’, may pay the price for its failings

Facebook’s already terrible year is ending on a new low, as Mark Zuckerberg and his beleaguered executive team battle another share price slide, this time triggered by new revelations about the company’s relaxed attitude to the privacy of its 2.2 billion customers’ data.

Shares dropped more than 7% on Tuesday after it was revealed that the company had bent its own data rules for clients including Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony.

The latest damaging report, published by the New York Times on the back of a District of Columbia lawsuit accusing the social media giant of exposing residents to political manipulation by “failing to protect” user data during the 2016 US presidential election, will surely be disagreeable to Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 34-year-old founder, chief executive and controlling stockholder.

But it is Sheryl Sandberg, former chief of staff at the US treasury under Larry Summers and the woman brought in a decade ago to be the “adult” in Facebook’s executive ranks, who is largely taking the heat for the company’s mounting operational, financial, political and public relations challenges.

“There’s little doubt the company is facing critical challenges and has made some egregious mistakes,” says Kathryn Kolbert of the Athena Centre for Leadership Studies. “The fact that Sandberg was brought in to be the adult in the room does not absolve Zuckerberg of responsibility.

“Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, and he’s been at it a while. He’s a grown-up. He ought to be responsible. But from what I see, there isn’t the sense that both should be accountable.”

Facebook claimed that the research into Soros “was already under way when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock”.

However, the backlash against Sandberg, until recently a figurehead for tech-branded progressive feminism, has barely relented.

The bestselling author, who just a year ago was riding high on the success of Option B, a follow-up to her empowerment manual Lean In, is taking hits from all sides.

Sandberg, as the executive who helped develop Google’s ad-supported business strategy before joining Facebook, was in the firing line in September when the company became the focus of an American Civil Liberties Union complaint alleging that its advertising system allows employers to target job ads based on gender.

Three weeks ago, before a sold-out audience at the Barclays Centre indoor arena in Brooklyn, former first lady Michelle Obama said Sandberg’s belief that women can always “have it all” if they assert themselves across their personal and professional lives – a key tenet of Sandberg’s Lean Inphilosophy– is “a lie”.

Then last week the civil rights group NAACP launched a week-long boycott of Facebook after a report it had commissioned highlighted concerns over voter suppression, ad targeting and the company’s own issue with workplace diversity.

“We know that we need to do more: to listen, look deeper and take action to respect fundamental rights,” Sandberg said in a conciliatory statement.

According to Nathalie Molina Niño, author of Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs, part of the hostility aimed at Sandberg is certainly related to her gender. “The higher a woman gets in terms of success, the greater the culture that enjoys taking her down,” Niño says. Indeed, negative posts on Sandberg’s own Facebook page are largely written by men.

At the same time, Niño points out, Lean In missed the mark because it failed to reflect the experience of most women who are balancing work and family.

As a result, Sandberg has become synonymous with a particular brand of female empowerment that is considered out of touch with notions of inclusiveness.

“It’s applicable only to women in the corporate world and that’s a fairly small, marginal group,” Niño says. What Lean In showed, in fact, “is in contrast to what is true for most women, and the backlash against Sandberg is a reflection of that reality”.

But Sandberg is not standing back. It is a measure of her resilience, as well as solid support from Zuckerberg and Facebook’s board, that she has stayed put.

In an interview with the news network CNN, Zuckerberg said: “Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts to address a lot of the biggest issues that we have. She’s been an important partner for me for 10 years … I hope that we work together for decades more to come.”

While Sandberg is taking the heat for Facebook’s problems, Zuckerberg appears to be relatively unscathed. “The company is facing incredible challenges and has made egregious mistakes, so Zuckerberg should bear primary responsibility,” says Charles Elson, expert in corporate governance at the University of Delaware.

Forcing Sandberg out, he says, would solve the perception that the company is taking action, but achieve nothing in terms of resolving the seemingly insurmountable issue of policing the user content of a global social network.

 

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