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Leaning out: The most powerful woman in tech moves on

The smartest insight and analysis, from all perspectives, rounded up from around the web:

How will history judge the one-time tech superstar who told American women to "lean in" to their careers? asked Shira Ovide in The New York Times. Well, it's complicated. Sheryl Sandberg, Meta's departing chief operating officer, "shares in the credit (or blame) for developing two of the most successful, and perhaps least defensible, business models in internet history." Before joining Facebook (now Meta) — which she announced last week she is leaving after 14 years — Sandberg helped Google build a digital ad business that became indispensable to every marketer. When she was hired by then-23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg in 2008, she designed an even "more sophisticated" and precise system that could be scaled to reach billions of users. Now we know the darker side of this strategy, which enabled personal data to be harvested and exploited by bad actors. But "Facebook wouldn't be what it is today — both good and bad — without Sandberg's partnership with Zuckerberg."

It was inevitable that Sandberg and Zuckerberg would reach a fork in the road, said Steven Levy in Wired. Zuckerberg "gave her tremendous autonomy" over everything from selling ads to communications, lobbying, and policy. Zuckerberg knew that he didn't have the "life experience" to run all of those. The price, though, was that "troubles in Sandberg's world were slow to find their way to Zuckerberg," and the "consequences were disastrous." Zuckerberg's relationship with Sandberg never recovered after Zuckerberg told her that "he blamed her and her teams" for getting Facebook embroiled in scandals around the 2016 elections, said Salvador Rodriguez in The Wall Street Journal. While Sandberg stayed on, there was "persistent speculation about her leaving." Meanwhile, the job weighed heavily on her; she postponed a sabbatical several times and was caught up in a Facebook investigation of her "use of corporate resources to help plan her upcoming wedding." By the end, the woman who told other women to lean in was "increasingly burned out."

Still, we shouldn't lose sight of that lean-in legacy for working women, said Sarah Green Carmichael in Bloomberg. Her monumental 2013 book has "become decidedly uncool" in certain feminist circles where Sandberg's "wealthy, white, capitalist, cisgender, and heterosexual" perspective is met with skepticism. But Sandberg "changed the conversation" about women and power. It was rare for women in the C-suite "to talk about demanding pregnancy parking," because there was a fear "that admitting to femaleness would cause them to be taken less seriously." Sandberg helped dispel that myth and encouraged other women to discuss their experiences. 

Zuckerberg's difficulty now is that he has no business model other than the one Sandberg created, said Gina Chon in BreakingViews. Her approach was imperfect, but you "could sell it to investors." Facebook's move into the metaverse "is visionary but highly uncertain," and Sandberg's replacement "is an expert in products, not finance." Zuckerberg "has always been in the driver's seat," but he needed a trusty co-pilot "taking many more slings and arrows than he," said Kara Swisher in The New York Times. He is a "talented techie," but I am dubious that Zuckerberg "can do what needs to be done to make his virtual world a success without another Sandberg type at his side."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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