What really triggered the exit of Facebook's feminist queen?

What really triggered the exit of Facebook’s feminist queen? TOM LEONARD examines how the billionaire public face of the social media giant Sheryl Sandberg quit under clouds of controversy

  • Sheryl Sandberg was the social media icon who told women they could have it all
  • But as Nick Clegg takes her place, questions about her exit still remain 
  • Ms Sandberg had just a day of good press before news broke of a probe
  • When Sheryl Sandberg was at the height of her power as Mark Zuckerberg‘s number two at Facebook, she reportedly hired a PR company who charged $30,000 a month to burnish her public image.

    But, following her departure from the social media giant last week after 14 years, insisting she needed to spend more time with her family and work on various philanthropic enterprises, she is in need of their services more than ever.

    For Miss Sandberg — whose role as the public face of the social media giant has now been filled by the company’s president of global affairs, the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg — had just a day to bask in progressive virtuousness before it emerged there might be other reasons why she’d left the controversial technology company.

    Miss Sandberg (pictured last July with Mark Zuckerberg) became Facebook's valuable face

    Miss Sandberg (pictured last July with Mark Zuckerberg) became Facebook’s valuable face

    It turns out that Silicon Valley’s feminist queen, who claimed she was leaving principally to help her fellow women fight attempts by a conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court to challenge legal abortion in America, was reportedly under investigation by her ex-employer over her use of company resources.

    Within 24 hours of Miss Sandberg’s rather pious announcement, the Wall Street Journal sensationally reported that she has been the subject of a probe by Facebook lawyers for months over her use of company staff and resources on her personal projects.

    And we’re not talking about PAs dashing out to collect her dry cleaning or pick up an oat milk latte, but people said to be working on her philanthropic foundation, promoting her next book, and allegedly organising her forthcoming wedding to Tom Bernthal, the chief executive of a marketing consultancy.

    Both Facebook and Sandberg have denied that the internal investigation into her behaviour has anything to do with her decision to leave Facebook — she will be staying on as a member of the board of its parent company Meta Platforms — and the Journal conceded that senior Facebook executives often use company resources to get things done in areas of their private lives.

    However, the allegations threaten to damage the legacy of a billionaire businesswoman who had such a central role in turning Facebook into a social media phenomenon, albeit one with a reputation for not doing enough to root out hate speech and ‘fake news’.

    Since the former management consultant and Google advertising expert joined the company in 2008 — four years after its founding — to be ‘the adult in the room’ and help it monetise its vast and growing base of users, its annual revenue has ballooned from $200 million to $117 billion last year.

    Sandberg is accused of using company resources to plan her upcoming wedding to marketing executive Tom Bernthal (also pictured). She denies it had anything to do with her exit

    Sandberg is accused of using company resources to plan her upcoming wedding to marketing executive Tom Bernthal (also pictured). She denies it had anything to do with her exit

    And her rewards have been correspondingly vast. In 2020, Miss Sandberg took home just over $875,000 in basic pay, and a bonus of more than $900,000, as well as $19.7 million in shares. Her total net worth is put at $1.6 billion.

    The Journal reported that her departure was the ‘culmination of a years-long process in which one of the world’s most powerful executives became increasingly burned out and disconnected’ from Facebook.

    Ms Sandberg (pictured at an abortions protest in Washington, DC) claimed to be leaving the company to focus on activism

    Ms Sandberg (pictured at an abortions protest in Washington, DC) claimed to be leaving the company to focus on activism

    But the way Sandberg pitches it, she was giving it all up for the sake of womankind.

    ‘This is a really important moment for women,’ she gushed about the Supreme Court’s challenge to the historic Roe v Wade ruling that paved the way for legal abortion in the US. ‘This is a really important moment for me to be able to do more with my philanthropy, with my foundation.’

    She also said that after struggling to juggle work and home life, she wanted to spend more time with her family.

    Miss Sandberg, whose first marriage ended in divorce after a year, had two children with her second husband, Dave Goldberg, who died in 2015 after an accident at a holiday villa in Mexico.

    Then, in 2019, her former brother-in-law Rob set her up with Tom Bernthal. The couple became engaged in February 2020, Bernthal proposing with a ring decorated with five tiny hidden diamonds, representing their five children (Bernthal has three with his ex-wife).

    In an intimate letter to Bernthal last year, published in Good Housekeeping, Sandberg said she ‘could barely imagine dating again, much less getting married’ after losing Goldberg. But she changed her mind upon meeting Bernthal.

    The wedding is likely to include famous friends such as businesswoman Arianna Huffington, broadcaster Katie Couric and actress Kate Bosworth.

    Sandberg (pictured in Paris, 2017) will remain on the board of parent company Meta Platforms

    Sandberg (pictured in Paris, 2017) will remain on the board of parent company Meta Platforms

    But Sandberg’s domestic bliss may well be marred by claims that were reported earlier this year.

    The Wall Street Journal reported that there had been ‘fresh irritation’ at the top of Facebook over the newspaper’s allegations that Sandberg had ‘pressured’ the Daily Mail’s online operation to scrap an article about a temporary restraining order taken out against Miss Sandberg’s then boyfriend, computer games tycoon Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision Blizzard, by an old flame.

    The woman later retracted some of the allegations and Meta denied that any threat against the website had ever been made.

    Today, Meta has a market capitalisation of $455billion but its success has come at a price —and one that’s been paid by its account holders.

    With nearly three billion active users, many of us have clearly not been put off by the endless wave of negative headlines Facebook has attracted over the years, but the company has earned a reputation as uniquely duplicitous and venal even by Silicon Valley standards.

    Sanberg (pictured in 2018) has been credited as a key to Facebook's decades-long success

    Sanberg (pictured in 2018) has been credited as a key to Facebook’s decades-long success

    Under Zuckerberg and Sandberg, the company lurched from scandal to scandal. Most notably, it was accused of running ads paid for by ‘Russian actors’ with links to the Kremlin during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    And it was sued for $150billion by displaced members of Myanmar’s Rohingya community over claims it contributed to genocide in their homeland by not only failing to take down inflammatory posts about the country’s Muslim minority but amplifying them via its algorithms.

    However, the incident that may have proved a turning point for Sandberg’s fortunes concerned the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

    Facebook allowed it to harvest 87 million users’ private information without their consent and use this data to target voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    Mr Zuckerberg reportedly laid the blame for this fiasco — which saw Facebook fined £500,000 in the UK for a ‘serious breach’ of the law — squarely on the shoulders of Miss Sandberg, who apologised repeatedly for Facebook’s mistakes over the Cambridge Analytica scandal and took personal responsibility. She told the Financial Times in April 2018: ‘We made mistakes and I own them and they are on me.’

    Insiders say her star started to fade at the company from that point.

    Her legacy could be risked by an internal probe into alleged misuse of resources (Meta HQ)

    Her legacy could be risked by an internal probe into alleged misuse of resources (Meta HQ)

    But perhaps the most damaging blow to the company — and by extension Miss Sandberg — was struck last year by one of its own: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen provided a shocking insight into the inner workings of the intensely secretive tech giant. She told Congress that the social media giant knew it was harming children, sowing division and undermining democracy, but continued to do so in pursuit of frenetic growth and ‘astronomical profits’.

    Haugen revealed an internal company study that found that 13.5 per cent of UK teenage girls said their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after joining the social media site Instagram, owned by Facebook.

    Another leaked study found 17 per cent of female teenagers said their eating disorders got worse after using Instagram.

    (Facebook countered that it had taken steps to rectify the failings identified by Ms Haugen.)

    Who, one might well ask, walks away from all this carnage, lightly saying that they need to devote their valuable time and money to fighting for women’s rights? It would have to be someone with a lot of chutzpah. And Miss Sandberg, a former high-flying U.S. Treasury official who was top of her class at Harvard Business School, certainly has that.

    In 2013, she published her first book, Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead, in which she argued that — contrary to received opinion that working mothers had to make compromises — they could have it all, if only they were a bit more like her. Put your career first, ‘lean in’ to your job, and the rest of your life will sort itself out.

    Sandberg, pictured during a 2018 Senate hearing, was a leading light in corporate America

    Sandberg, pictured during a 2018 Senate hearing, was a leading light in corporate America

    While she described it as a ‘sort of feminist manifesto’, many women lambasted Miss Sandberg as patronising and elitist.

    She might be able to afford an army of childminders and helpers, but her advice was offensively unrealistic for most women, they said. A prominent U.S. columnist dismissed her as a ‘PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots’.

    On the back of the book, she launched a campaign — backed by Victoria Beckham and Beyoncé — to discourage the word ‘bossy’ on the grounds it puts girls down and discourages them from being ambitious.

    People close to Miss Sandberg say she believes she wouldn’t have been criticised so savagely during her time at Facebook if she’d been a man, and others have claimed that the conveniently timed revelations about an internal investigation into her behaviour smacks of a corporate smear campaign.

    There certainly may be no shortage of Facebook colleagues happy to dish the dirt.

    The woman who would take a ten-strong entourage when she visited Washington has long had a reputation for being regal and self-obsessed.

    Insiders said she lives in a bubble, surrounded by confidants dubbed ‘FOSS’ (Friends Of Sheryl Sandberg) in the company.

    She was rumoured to have considered running for a seat in the U.S. Senate and even the White House. In 2020, Facebook: The Inside Story, by technology writer Steven Levy portrayed Miss Sandberg as an image-obsessed tyrant who screamed at underlings but — like Zuckerberg — naively believed Facebook was entirely a force for good.

    She had a reputation for ruthless if priggish efficiency, he said. ‘It was like Wendy parachuting on to the island of Lost Boys,’ Levy wrote of her arrival at a company that had a frat boy atmosphere.

    It wouldn’t be hard to outdo the robotic Zuckerberg — who once told Levy ‘I don’t optimise for fun’ — in the charm stakes.

    However, said Levy, Miss Sandberg ‘was prone to yelling at subordinates when they did not live up to her demands’ and had ‘screaming matches’ with a senior colleague.

    He said she was so ‘obsessed with her public image’ that she not only hired a PR company but always told media interviewers she was ‘nervous’ in the hope of being given more sympathetic treatment.

    In response, Miss Sandberg admitted she had high standards but disputed the allegations that she yelled at subordinates or has a fixation on her public image.

    Hailed by some prominent feminists as a role model for working women, Miss Sandberg has ended up instead being a cautionary tale, say her detractors.

    As she ‘leans in’ to new challenges, she can at least console herself that she probably won’t need colleagues to sort out her private life. She’ll soon have plenty of time, even for the wedding.