Sheryl Sandberg is the most famous business-woman in the world. As COO of Facebook – often dubbed in Silicon Valley the human face of Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth– she joined a company full of twenty something tech bros and turned it into a super-lucrative personalised-advertising machine. Under her tenure revenues soared from $777million in 2009 to $117billion in 2021 – she once said she was “put on this planet to scale organisations”.
But this week all of that came to an end. On Wednesday June 1st 2022 Sheryl announced she was leaving Meta in (where else?) a Facebook post. Her boss Zuckerberg chimed afterwards, in a carefully choreographed exchange, that it was “the end of an era”. There had been whiffs of division between the odd couple for a while, but the timing was definitely a shock. How come the Queen of Lean in, is suddenly leaning out?
And what is really behind her decision to leave – and what is next for Sandberg? Is she just another midlife woman forced out of a corporate role by gendered ageism (an ONS poll found women over 45 are finding it particularly tough to get rehired after losing their jobs in the pandemic despite the economy being awash with vacancies). Or is this an example of a high-powered woman choosing – at 52 – to refocus her life on more personal and purposeful projects? What we would call at my platform for women in midlife www.noon.co.uk finding her next chapter, doing the midlife pivot – moving into a new more focussed and fulfilling phase?
The day after Sheryl said she was leaving I caught up with her for her first post-announcement interview to find out what the thinking was behind her leaving Facebook and what she intends to do next.
We spoke at the end of what had obviously been a trying time. “It’s definitely been a hectic two days,” she began by saying. “I’m tired, my chief of staff is tired but we are getting through it. It is so great to talk to you Eleanor you have such a fresh take on the lives of women in midlife, one that I really care about.”
It is not the first time Sheryl and I have spoken. I went to California to interview her before the pandemic. Silicon Valley always sounds glamorous, but the mighty Facebook campus reminded me of IKEA, all blue reflective glass and endless car parks and much of Palo Alto is an industrial suburb a bit like Slough . The office is so huge employees use bicycles to get from one end to the other and even Sandberg and Zuckerberg sat at work stations on the open floor – no solo offices even for them.
Perhaps relevantly to the conversation we had last week, I was made redundant from a corporate job I’d done for 23 years just as that interview was published. In the aftermath Sandberg not only stayed in touch but supported my new start up and campaign to change the narrative about the lives and careers of older women to something more positive. After all, why are men seen to age like fine wine (getting better with every passing year) while women are viewed like peaches, (one wrinkle and you’re out)? Given all our conversations about the obstacles older women in the work force face and Sheryl knowing that I was familiar with the huge loss of identity and struggle that losing a big job and then starting a new chapter in midlife involves, it was telling that she should choose to reach out and speak to me at this point.
Sheryl did not sound her normal self. When we’ve talked before she was almost super-humanely fluent and briefed. This time our conversation was punctuated by long uncharacteristic pauses.
So what happened, I asked. Why have you decided to leave?
“Well, it’s not one thing or one day. I’m 14 years into what was going to be a five year job. A job I took thinking it would last five years that went on…..” There is a long pause. “You and I have talked before about how women face steeper challenges at every stage. Early in their career they are told they shouldn’t go for big jobs if they want to have kids, or they are told that if they do take a big job they won’t stay in it very long because of kids. And there is a lot of age discrimination that hits women at this stage, you know… ageism hits women harder than men.” Sandberg was famously dubbed middle-aged at the tender stage of 35 when she first started at Facebook. There are vanishingly few older female executives in the tech world. Her departure leaves a very male leadership team behind at Facebook.
But, I say, why are you leaving now, you were so full of the challenges to come and how much you were relishing it all when we last met?
“Well there’s no clear beginning or end to the advertising business, no beginning or end to the metaverse,” she says rather opaquely.
That is of course true. But there is a sense within Facebook that Sheryl was surplus to requirements on the Metaverse project which is Zuckerberg’s new baby; he is said to be ‘throwing the farm’ at all things internet 3.0 and virtual reality and her departure consolidates his own power. Those who used to report to Sheryl will now report to him.
“I am very focussed on creating a smooth transition,” Sandberg says firmly. “I’m proud, I’m proud of the team we’ve built. I’m proud of that fact that Mark…” she pauses, corrects herself. “That I was able to make this decision… that I talked to Mark, that we announced it very quickly… and that we are leaving so many strong people in place. I am focussing on the transition until the fall and then I am going to take a breath and focus more on women, philanthropy and take a pause and think about what I am going to do next.”
So is this her making peace with her corporate career? Is this the end of the line for her as an executive? Is she hoping for a next stage?
There is another uncharacteristic pause. “I don’t know,” she says. “I would say: ‘never say never’…. I of all people know that you never know what life will bring.”
The background to all of this inside the company is that the Meta share price has plummeted, partly because Zuckerberg said it might take 10 years for the Metaverse to make a profit. Some commentators say Sandberg is wise to get out now: Facebook’s user numbers have declined for the first time as lucrative young advertising eyeballs are being attracted to TikTok and other platforms, and growth is sluggish on Facebook itself and Instagram. Many insiders have insinuated that the Sheryl and Mark love affair has been cooling for a while. Ex UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is now installed as Zuckerberg’s mouthpiece (a role that used to be Sheryl’s) and factotum of government relations (that used to be Sandberg’s territory too as a former Washington insider). And Zuckerberg and Sandberg are said to have been at odds over content moderation – with him taking a publish and be damned attitude to controversial posts, while she was more worried about some of the damaging effects of polarising speech and trolls (particularly the mental health of teens using the platform and how it was being used to stir up US politics). There were also reports that she had used Facebook/Meta resources to plan her wedding next month.
From my conversation with Sheryl, however, I’d say personal reasons were the big driver this time.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful job but not one that leaves time and space for many other things… it really isn’t,” she tells me with feeling.
This move should be seen in the context of a whole new spring in Sandberg’s personal life. When we met before the pandemic she was girlishly gushing about how excited she was to have fallen in love again with Tom Bernthal (they were set up by her dead first husband’s brother) and how she had asked Tom to marry her because, “Women shouldn’t wait to be asked, we need to get on with planning our lives.”
In July 2022 Sheryl will finally marry Bernthal – after the pandemic forced a long pause to their wedding plans. Their new blended family will boast five teenagers. That would be a big shift for any woman. And let’s not forget that as well as a massive job as COO of Facebook Sheryl wrote Lean In, a bestselling book about female empowerment and set up the Lean In Foundation which now runs 60,000 Lean In circles (to fire up female ambition) in 189 countries. And if that wasn’t enough she also wrote another book, the surprisingly moving Option B, about grief in the wake of her first husband’s death on a treadmill in Mexico at only 48 (she was left as a single mother of two children). Facebook is certainly not the only tune in her songbook.
“Sheryl’s move shows that women are not just our jobs,” explains her friend Arianna Huffington, 71 (who founded the Huffington Post at 55 and is of course the Founder of Thrive).
“When you have a big job like Sheryl had there is a temptation to identify yourself with it and when you give it up you don’t know who you are. So many women over-stay in those jobs, long after they are fulfilling because our own identity becomes so tied up with the status of the job. Sheryl is being very brave. This is her decision. She is moving into the next stage of her life. She has so many new beginnings at the moment, the new husband, the new family. And she has always been so much more than her Facebook job, the books, her Lean In organisation.”
This chimes with what Sandberg told me herself.
“I really want to do more with my foundation; I need to put time and space into helping women,” she said. “This is such a critically important time – the pandemic has led to forty per cent of women considering quitting their jobs, there are such high rates of burn out. I want to give myself the time and the space to turbo-charge my work on all of that. I mean when I wrote Lean In ten years ago now, there were five female Fortune 500 CEOs and now there are eight – I mean given women have been getting fifty per cent of degrees for decades now, we’d all hoped for more change than that. I really want to be a powerful force in driving that shift.”
Unlike many senior women, Sandberg really has walked the walk when it comes to female empowerment, she has always been practical and passionate about what needs to be done. Her maxims, including: done is better than perfect; don’t leave before you leave (about women opting for the mummy track) and Take your seat at the table – are good mantras for all working women. Last week and over the last two years we have talked often about that urge for a change in midlife, about how in our fifties we reach a new flex point in our lives and there is just an overwhelming urge to do something different, perhaps a sense of the drumbeat of time, of there being more of life under the bridge than there is to come. Of shifting priorities and choices. The sense that if we want to do something different, we have to get on and do it now.
“You and I have talked a lot about life stages and transitions” Sandberg says, “and the burden that women carry around life stages and children – and of course at this stage in our lives around caring for our parents too.”
There is another pause. “People keep asking me if there is another reason… But there is no big story….. “
Her voice sounds hoarse with emotion. And then maybe we get to the crux of things.
“My mother in law passed away. We went to her funeral last week…You know what I mean it is definitely a moment.. .It’s a moment of realising that there are these days and these transitions. That life….” She pauses again. “Really Eleanor, there isn’t one thing that drove this decision. Just life…”
I do know, so well what she means. And so do so many other women at this stage.
“It is a different world now,” says Huffington. “Women now move into their prime in midlife, we don’t need to look over our shoulder for approval, we can do what we want. Sheryl can model that onward shift into a new phase for a whole generation of Queenagers.”
Queenagers is our new moniker for women in midlife – moving into a new chapters, masters of our own destinies. Seeing this time as an age of possibility, of a whole new start, a new phase. We are not done, crones, walking hot flushes; we are Queenagers, coming into our prime. This is definitely how Sheryl wants us to see this shift for her. “I love this new narrative around older women and what we are capable of becoming,” says Sandberg. “I’m proud to be a Queenager”.
Eleanor Mills is the Founder and Editor in chief of Noon.org.uk a platform for women in midlife. This article first appeared in her newsletter The Queenager, which is her weekly offering on substack to members of that community.
I really hope you enjoyed this newsletter. If you would like to support the work we are doing on Queenagers and at my new platform www.Noon.org.uk you could become a free or a paid subscriber to this newsletter. For £6 a month you will get a free book every four weeks from Penguin which will be discussed at our Noon book club (led by Eleanor where we explore lots of relevant themes). Additionally paid subscribers get extra content and can join a Noon Circle every month where we discuss what subjects should be featured on Noon and what issues are particularly prescient for our members. There will also be chances to sample free products, discounts to our retreats and events and the satisfaction of knowing you are part of changing the narrative about the lives of older women
Behind the scenes: How I got this interview:
I’d gone off to Savernake Forest, an ancient woodland in the heart of England, home to the mighty King of Limbs and other thousand-year-old oak trees for a spot of Jubilee weekend fraternising with old friends and nature when my phone bleeped. Sheryl Sandberg was leaving Facebook – the world’s most famous Queenager Businesswoman was out of her role as COO of the Metaverse.
I was surprised, when I chatted to her last year and just before the pandemic (this is the pic we took of her at her desk for the magazine I then edited) she was full of the job and how much more there was to do. And more than that, Sheryl is my friend. Our fates have been rather curiously intertwined over the past few years. The very last assignment I did for the Sunday Times before it was all over and I was out, was to go to Palo Alto in California to Facebook HQ to interview Sheryl for the cover of the magazine for International Women’s Day. I didn’t know it was my last hurrah… but it was a good way to go!
In person Sheryl was all glossy blow dry and peanut butter with apple dippers; she had a confiding sweetness, she’d just got engaged in 2020 and was super excited about going to a country and western concert with her new beau straight after our interview. Immediately the photoshoot was finished, she stripped off her teal dress (the one above) and switched into jeans, cowboy boots and the softest ever peach cashmere jumper so she’d be ready for hoe-down action when our chat finished.
I am both a personal and public fan – Sheryl means it when it comes to helping women.
More than that, we are real fellow travellers on banging the drum for more women at the top, on boards, running things and having true diversity of leadership. When I set up my new platform www.Noon.org.uk (and before that when I was feeling like the bottom had dropped out of my world) she was super supportive – in fact she did a Facebook Live with me (you can watch it here ) about what a brilliant idea Noon was and how older women and what happened to them were the final frontier of feminism. She is a true supporter of women, I can vouch for it. People who look after you when you are down, when there is nothing you can do for them, always have a special place in your heart.
So there we are: she’d resigned. I was in a tent in the middle of the woods. (Can you spot me on the left in the pic below?)
And about half an hour later my phone pinged again. It was Sheryl’s chief of staff the incredible Caroline Nolan, a mother of five, and total Queenager legend (we hung out when I went to San Francisco) who had emailed me saying: would you like to chat to Sheryl? “Hell yes” I said. And so it came about that in the middle of the forest, sitting in my car I interviewed Sandberg on her departure from Facebook and why she is moving into a new chapter in midlife. And yes, she said: “I am delighted and proud to be a Queenager”
I wrote up our chat (without any of this top bit of course, that is just for readers of this newsletter ) for one of the weekend newspapers, it being a world exclusive. And I also chatted to Arianna Huffington, 71, who founded the Huffington Post at 55 and her new business Thrive at 66 – so another great midlife role model – about Sheryl, who is a friend of her’s too. She says: “The great thing about being an older woman now is that we have so much longer to have an impact. After fifty we come into our own, we don’t have to look over our shoulder for approval, we can do what we want – Sheryl can model that for a whole generation of Queenagers”!
I say Bravo to that…and have to say I am super chuffed that two of the most famous queenagers in the world are now using the term! If you would like to find out more about Queenagers and my website www.noon.org.uk you can subscribe to my substack The Queenager with Eleanor Mills | Substack