Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Lean Out

Suddenly, everyone wants Sheryl Sandberg to lean out.

Apologies for using that obvious turn of phrase to describe the precarious situation the chief operating officer of Facebook now finds herself in. But it works perfectly for Ms. Sandberg, the author of “Lean In,” which made her very famous and helped burnish her reputation as a management wizard.

Now she finds herself facing intense criticism for how she and the company handled the Cambridge Analytica scandal, account hacks, Russians running wild over its platform and the hiring of a communications firm called Definers Public Affairs (which really sounds like something a bunch of toxic bros would come up with after too many beer bongs down at Faber College’s Omega Theta Pi) to slime various and sundry detractors. Many are even calling for her to be pushed out of the company.

To be clear, as the No. 2 in charge, Ms. Sandberg deserves much blame for the bad decisions at Facebook. But it’s notable that she is under much more fire than Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive. While he underwent some scrutiny at Congressional hearings and in interviews, he has somehow managed to come off like a geek who has lost his way in the woods. Whatever blame he got has dissipated quickly.

Ms. Sandberg dodged many of the Facebook controversies this year. But no longer. A recent New York Times article that laid bare the last months at the company began with the line: “Sheryl Sandberg was seething,” and went on to show her yelling at the company’s security chief, Alex Stamos, trying to slow roll the utterance of the word “Russia” in a report and alternately sweet-talking and strong-arming lawmakers to Facebook’s will.

And this week, in news dropped on the day before Thanksgiving, Ms. Sandberg admitted she did know a thing or two about the hiring of the Definers, after previously saying that she did not.

One of her lieutenants, Elliot Schrage, wrote a post in which he admitted — as everyone who knows him and the company already assumed — that he was the one who hired and directed the firm. But Ms. Sandberg somehow looked even worse in an addendum. “Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me,” she wrote, “and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”

Whoops. And so now come the calls for her comeuppance, which have been growing louder. Ms. Sandberg is especially vulnerable because she has long been cast as the professional — who came from Google no less — in contrast to “Zuck,” the founder, the dude whom no one thought had the people skills or altruistic motives to deal with these high stakes political decisions.

And yet he is the one with the power at Facebook. He is its top executive, its visionary founder and, most of all, its controlling shareholder. Mr. Zuckerberg, if you want to use a comic-book reference here, is a combination of Wolverine and Deadpool with a little bit of zombie magic thrown in.

Mr. Schrage, the one who actually made the bad call on the press strategy, is also somehow evading censure: He is now seen as the loyal guy who fell on his sword, while Ms. Sandberg looks more like the one who pushed him onto the blade.

And that is one of the key lessons to learn here about the tech industry today: Everyone expects so little from the male leaders who are often seen as the fulcrum of the digital worlds they create, while the female leaders — who are not usually the inventors — are held to a tougher line.

Ms. Sandberg, of course, has power over much of Facebook’s business operations, advertising and also the critical communications and policy units. Perhaps it’s only fair that, as women rise to power, they pay the price for failure.

But what is more often true in tech is that men are seen as the key players, and women are just not seen as crucial to a company's success. That inequity has become a theme of a wide range of employment issues across Silicon Valley of late, including the phenomenon of “underleveling” — hiring women and people of color at a lower level than they deserve.

In a podcast I did this week with six of the organizers of the Google walkout to protest sexual harassment policies and pay inequity, one of them, Stephanie Parker, described her situation compared to similarly qualified men.

“I, as a black woman at Google, came in with an undergraduate and master’s degree from Stanford and three years’ worth of experience working in the tech industry, and they chose to put me into an entry-level six-month contract position in recruiting,” she said.

She said Google managers insist that the company isn’t diverse enough because of the “pipeline problem.” They say: “We need to go to more schools and teach them how to code. There’s something wrong with these students and something wrong with the pipeline.” But she argued there’s a bigger problem at Google that has nothing to do with the pipeline. “Black women have the highest attrition rate. They’re leaving Google at higher rates than any other group, all over the industry.”

She and the other organizers blamed this on opportunities that were not offered as readily, on tougher hurdles to leap over, on pay that was consistently lower and, most of all, on a system that forgave the men for their mistakes, and did not forgive the women.

That was underscored at Google by an astonishing $90 million payout to the top executive Andy Rubin when he left in a cloud of controversy.

Ms. Parker, who now works at YouTube, described succinctly the issue of who really paid the price for his sins. At the walkout, she said she asked the crowd: “Where do you think Google got that $90 million they used to pay out Andy Rubin? They got it from every time you worked late. Every promotion you didn’t get because they said there’s not enough budget, you have to wait. It’s from every contractor who came to work sick because they have no paid time off. These are conscious decisions that the company is making, and abusers are getting rich off of our hard work. It’s just not fair, and they completely know what they’re doing.”

They completely do. Ms. Sandberg is hardly blameless, but notice that she is the one facing the real firing line and not Mr. Zuckerberg. Which is to say, no matter his responsibility, he is unkillable, unfireable and untouchable and no amount of leaning in by Ms. Sandberg or any other woman in tech is going to change that.

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Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher Facebook

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