Sheryl Sandberg announced on Wednesday she will step down from her role as chief operating officer of Facebook, after 14 years as one of the most powerful figures at a company that transformed Silicon Valley.
During her time at Facebook, now Meta, she saw the company through a meteoric rise and an ongoing storm of controversies. Sandberg herself transformed into a controversial figurehead for corporate feminism following the release of her book Lean In, which became a seminal manifesto for women in the workplace.
Facebook, with Sandberg as one of its most public faces, has weathered scrutiny over the Cambridge Analytica breach, the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and most recently documents leaked by the whistleblower Frances Haugen that revealed some of the platform’s most toxic impacts.
While the scandals have created a mixed legacy for the executive, her mark on the business of Facebook – and the entirety of the social media industry – is undeniable, said Debra Williamson an analyst at Insider Intelligence who has been following the company since its founding.
“There have been plenty of controversies surrounding Meta, but from a purely business standpoint, what she built at Facebook is pretty powerful, and will go down in the history books,” she said.
Sandberg joined Facebook four years after its founding to be “the adult in the room” of a young company and strategize the monetization of its growing user base. She helped revolutionize its advertising business model, turning the company into the juggernaut it is today at $117bn in revenue in 2021. In 2008, when she began, its yearly revenue was just $200m, according to Insider Intelligence.
The scandals that took place during her tenure led activists to call for her resignation in recent years, and put into question her legacy as a women’s rights leader. Under Sandberg’s watch, Meta platforms became “a rightwing playground where misogyny, racism, disinformation” proliferated, said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of women’s rights group UltraViolet.
“Sheryl Sandberg may fancy herself a feminist, but her decisions at Meta made social media platforms less safe for women, people of color, and the American electoral system,” Thomas said. “Sandberg had the power to take action for 14 years, yet consistently chose not to.”
She will be remembered not only for her business legacy, but also her time as a public figure for the company, said Scott Galloway, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business.
Sandberg has on a number of occasions testified in front of Congress to answer for Facebook’s missteps, taking the stand to deflect blame from the company for the Capitol riots and allegations of voter manipulation in 2016 and acting as a softer and more personable foil to the stoic CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Her primary role has been the most effective and expensive likability shield in history,” Galloway said. “Through her, Facebook invented what I call a nuclear weapon of mass distraction.”
In her absence, there are likely going to be more public statements from up-and-coming Meta officials, including its head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, and Instagram CEO, Adam Clegg.
Meanwhile, the issues at the root of congressional inquiries and public outrage are not likely to change following Sandberg’s departure, according to the hate speech watchdog group Media Matters for America.
“Hard to imagine, but Facebook is about to get even worse and much more dangerous,” Media Matters for America said in a statement.
In his response to her resignation, Zuckerberg has announced a new focus on building a content team that will rely more heavily on artificial intelligence – running in opposition to advocates’ recommendations that the company invest more heavily in human moderators.
That shift comes as Meta makes an even broader pivot away from the social media business and into the virtual reality space. The company rebranded in October 2021 from Facebook to Meta as Zuckerberg invested billions of dollars into the “metaverse”, an augmented and virtual reality space where people can interact through avatars in a shared world.
The metaverse venture comes as new privacy measures from Apple upended advertising systems central to the company’s revenue model, an issue Sandberg worked with closely, said Williamson.
“This is the end of an era – and probably a good reason why Sheryl decided this was time to leave. Facebook is needing to build the next advertising and business infrastructure, and that’s a huge challenge,” she said. “And one that someone else will have to take on.”