It’s an impossible task for any individual leader to represent her entire demographic. It’s also—usually—just not very fun.
Still, Sheryl Sandberg embraced the challenge. Over her 14 years as Facebook’s chief operating officer, she became one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful women, while enthusiastically building her own glass pedestal. Her bestselling corporate-feminist manifesto, Lean In, elevated Sandberg into a public role model, whose every move took on greater resonance for all female executives—including her decision to step down.
Last week, Sandberg officially resigned as the COO of Facebook (now Meta), after announcing her planned departure two months earlier. (She will remain an employee through September, and a board member thereafter.) Perhaps inevitably, she even framed that decision partly in terms of her gender: “This is a really important moment for women,” she told Fortune in June, explaining that she wanted to devote more attention to her philanthropy and advocacy for reproductive rights.
So it’s not surprising that everyone else has been paying close attention to her gender, too. What might Sandberg’s exit “reveal about women’s progress in tech,” one New York Times headline pondered in June, a day after another assessed what “Lean In has meant to women.” That “high-profile manifesto about women’s career and life choices changed the way we talk about workplace and leadership issues,” one Bloomberg op-ed argued, while The Atlantic retorted that Sandberg’s ode to “white feminism” was responsible for kindling “the crackling hellfire of corporate America.”
It’s a lot for one woman to carry! (And we’re not even getting into the complicated business legacy of her day job at Meta.) But it’s a common fate for any member of an underrepresented group who rises as far as Sandberg did, when her organization or her industry fails to promote her demographic peers into equally powerful positions. Sure, Sandberg actively embraced (and, ahem, leaned into) the responsibility of representing all women—but did she really have a choice? Or was she making the best of a common no-win situation?
“This thing happens for women, where they become ‘gender ambassadors,’” says Francesca Manzi, an assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics. “What they do, how they perform, or what they say all seems indicative of what other women are like—and that in and of itself is just a symptom of gender bias.”
A social/organizational psychologist who studies gender bias, Manzi is one of several academics who’s contributed to a vast library of research that tracks how female leaders are judged—and the “double binds” and “glass cliffs” they face. Sandberg brought some of this lingo into the mainstream, through Lean In and the research done by its eponymous foundation. Now the reactions to her departure are highlighting how relevant it remains; how much additional, invisible responsibility most female leaders are often forced to take on in the workplace—and how they are judged when they fail. As Manzi asks, with some exasperation: “Why should one woman’s behavior say anything about any other woman?”
Mostly because they’re so alone. Women account for only 9% of Fortune 500 CEOs today—an all-time high, but still stubbornly stuck in single-digit percentages. (Among the tech and startup founders aiming to follow in the footsteps of Sandberg’s boss and sometimes protégé, Meta founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the numbers are even more bleak, as Fortune covers regularly and extensively.) Among more mature tech companies, the executive landscape is equally barren; Sandberg’s departure means “Silicon Valley is losing one of its most visible and outspoken female executives, leaving few—some would say zero—similar peers in her wake,” the New York Times reported in June.
So however thankless the “gender ambassador” role remains, it’s hard to avoid for the women who do break through. “It’s this burden of responsibility that’s kind of hidden—and that men don’t have,” says Manzi. “You’re put in a role where you actually have to steer this huge company—and then on top of that, you have to convince people that not only you, but other women, can do it.”
It has to be said that Sandberg worked incredibly hard to do both—and did succeed at creating more opportunities for other women, according to some of those she mentored at Meta. Instacart CEO Fidji Simo, who previously ran Facebook’s flagship app, called Sandberg an “amazing supporter” in interviews with me for a story last year. Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu, former head of Facebook Marketplace, goes a step further. “Without her, we would not be here,” says Liu, who specifically credits Sandberg with recommending her for a board seat at Intuit—and for teaching her how to effectively mentor and sponsor other women, particularly other women of color. “She gave us the tools, and she gave us the support necessary to become the women leaders that we are today.”
Sandberg’s efforts to advocate for other women—and to do so very publicly—also seemed to serve some of her own personal goals. For example, unlike many rising corporate executives, the former Treasury Department official often appeared more interested in running for political office than auditioning for a CEO job. But however unique her motivations for publicly embracing the difficult “gender ambassador” role, her experiences still shaped the playbook for other female leaders of the past 14 years—in part because there are so few other women who could.
As a result, Sandberg’s ascent to the C-suite of one of the world’s largest companies became a road map for many a would-be girlboss—and for the men who hire, fund, or promote them. These men often went looking explicitly for “a Sheryl”: a seasoned executive and polished “adult in the room,” who would take on the COO’s unglamorous internal work of running a company and reining in—or babysitting—the untested male geniuses who get (the funding and board support) to be the hoodie-clad founder-CEOs.
“They’re like little boys,” as Manzi describes this conventional wisdom. “They’re disorganized, but they’re so talented—and they need someone to mother them.”
Sandberg is one of a handful of “first” or “only” women to be expected to take on so much more than the stated responsibilities of her senior C-suite job. Others who have shouldered that burden include former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer; former HP CEO Carly Fiorina; former eBay and HP CEO Meg Whitman; and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company.
As usual, it’s even lonelier and more difficult for the few women of color who climb to the top rungs of corporate America. After Burns stepped down from Xerox in 2016, there were no Black women running Fortune 500 companies for the next three years, until Mary Winston briefly served as Bed Bath & Beyond’s interim CEO. Today, there are a record-breaking two Black women atop Fortune 500 companies: Walgreens’s Roz Brewer and TIAA’s Thasunda Brown Duckett.
Burns recently acknowledged some of the complicated responsibilities of being an “ambassador” representing all Black executives, and especially Black women, to corporate America. Even today, she says she’s often either dismissed as a “smart-ass Black woman, who just thinks she owns the world” or held up as a remarkable outlier, Burns told Fortune’s Ellen McGirt last year. “Can we just move on to why are there not more people like me?”
The glass cliff
Sandberg’s departure from Meta isn’t the only blow for high-ranking women in corporate America this summer—and it’s certainly not the most abrupt. In July, Gap CEO Sonia Syngal was ousted from the struggling retailer, after only two and a half years in her role. Last week, Tinder CEO Renate Nyborg was dumped by the dating app—after less than a year—as its Match.com parent company reported disappointing earnings.
These sudden departures fit a sadly predictable—and data-backed—pattern: Female CEOs are given less time in their roles and are more likely to be forced out than men, according to data reported by Bloomberg last month. Women have an average CEO tenure of 6.6 years, compared with 9.9 years for men, according to the data compiled by research provider exechange.com.
“It’s unfair that when women do get a seat at the table, that they are supposed to fix every single thing,” says Minda Harts, a workplace equity consultant and founder of The Memo, a career development platform for women of color. “We have to have resources and support systems in place so that they really are able to be empowered—not just in name only.”
But with so few women visibly in power, the actions of those who do break through the glass ceiling take on more significance for all women—sometimes to their detriment. Researchers have been studying these hidden costs of success for decades: In 2004, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of England’s University of Exeter coined the term “the glass cliff,” after their research showed that women are more likely to be put into positions of power during times of crisis—meaning that the few women who do break through are often set up to fail.
For the most part, Sandberg doesn’t seem to be an example of the glass cliff in action. She’s stepping down after more than a decade, with a long farewell tour, and she says she’s doing so of her own volition. But she’s also leaving after several years of intense scrutiny and criticism of Meta’s global damage to privacy and democracy—and after losing some of her internal power—while Zuckerberg stays. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Meta is investigating Sandberg’s use of company resources for personal reasons, including to plan her upcoming wedding.
A Sandberg spokesperson at Meta says there’s no link between the reported investigation and Sandberg’s departure, and reiterated a denial first made to the Journal in June: “Sheryl did not inappropriately use company resources in connection with the planning of her wedding,” she said via email. Still…wedding planning, really? The fact that the accusation leaked in the first place is breathtakingly gendered—especially after the company benefited for years from Sandberg’s willingness to commercialize her personal stories, including the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015, in bestselling books that made Facebook look good. “It smacks of either a sexist double standard—in which Zuckerberg promoted his own personal brand while his deputy was sanctioned for similar behavior—or an effort to deflect from the real scandals that have swirled around Facebook, Zuckerberg, and Sandberg for years,” Bloomberg opined.
Whether or not Sandberg slipped on some glass on her way out, the void left by her departure illuminates another trap for female executives. LSE’s Manzi is the lead author of a 2020 academic paper about the limited impact that an individual’s success has for all women leaders. Her research, conducted with New York University professor Madeline E. Heilman, “challenges the assumption that the presence of women in leadership positions will automatically ‘break the glass ceiling’ for other women.”
Instead, they found, there are so few women in power that their actions—and their inevitable failures—are more likely to reinforce gender stereotypes in male-dominated professions, rather than breaking down more barriers for all women.
“Unsuccessful women are seen as more representative of other female leaders than successful women,” Manzi and Heilman write, grimly concluding that in some situations, “the presence of a female leader impedes rather than facilitates other women’s attainment of their leadership goals.”
In other words: Sometimes, through no fault of her own, a lone gender ambassador does more harm than good.
The double bind
It’s not terribly surprising, given all the other social-science research on (and infinite real-world experience of) the persistence of stereotypes and double standards facing women leaders across business and beyond. “Women in the business world face what’s been dubbed the ‘double bind,’ which penalizes them for ‘unfeminine’ behaviors that are expected and often applauded in male leaders,” I reported in this 2020 Fortune feature about female startup founders. “One 2007 study led by [Heilman] found that when two managers were described using identical personality traits but different genders, ‘women are decidedly more disliked’ and ‘are found to be less desirable as bosses.’ Where male leaders are seen as strong, determined, and decisive, women who behave the same way are judged to be aggressive, abrasive, or strident.”
Sandberg popularized much of this research, and even the term “the double bind,” in Lean In. Her 2013 bestseller launched a larger societal conversation about feminism and corporate diversity; a foundation that continues to publish research and drive conversations about women in the workforce; the eventual (and now-imploded) #girlboss groundswell—and plenty of backlash about how irrelevant Sandberg’s advice was to women of color or anyone else without her privileges (including whiteness, wealth, ability, social standing, and political connections).
“It just didn’t have this intersectional lens—but it did create this dialogue that we weren’t having before,” says Harts, who wrote her first book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, partially in response to Lean In. “Were there some flaws inside of Lean In? Absolutely. But Sheryl did crack the door open for a larger conversation about who is included in the room.”
However well known, the double bind is stubbornly persistent—and in some cases getting worse. Heidi Patel, managing partner of venture capital firm Rethink Impact, points out that as CEOs are expected to speak out on a wide range of social and political issues, female CEOs tend to face the highest expectations.
“Women as leaders need to perform according to all of the standard criteria, but they are also seen as the caretaker and the cultural carrier for their companies,” Patel says. “And that’s really, really hard, particularly in this moment.”
Patel’s venture capital firm invests in female-founded and -run companies, including “unicorn” startups Guild Education, Rachel Carlson’s ed tech company; Spring Health, April Koh’s mental health company; and Evidation Health, led by co-CEOs Deborah Kilpatrick and Christine Lemke. Patel also rattles off the names of several other women she admires as tech leaders, including Jennifer Tejada, CEO of software company PagerDuty; Anjali Sud, CEO of video platform Vimeo; and Michelle Zatlyn, COO and cofounder of cybersecurity company Cloudflare.
These women are relatively prominent in tech circles but are less known as gender ambassadors (if lesser known than Sandberg in general), partly because they mostly run B-to-B companies. As a result, they have less need to market broadly to consumers—and become the public faces of their companies—than the female founders of The Wing, Outdoor Voices, Away, and other now-infamous startups, for whom this strategy backfired spectacularly in recent years.
“What we’re going for is normalizing women in positions of extraordinary power and influence—and doing that in a way where you don’t need to be a pop-culture icon,” Patel says.
Strength in numbers
The double standards for women in power ultimately can’t be solved by individual female executives—even those as influential as Sheryl Sandberg. Systemically, little will change without the support of the men who still control the vast majority of Fortune 500 CEO roles, board seats at both public and private companies, and VC funding decisions. “We still don’t hold the majority of power inside the workplace—so there’s only so much we can do,” Harts points out. “I really would love to see men in power showing up and being active allies for women, when we do get into these positions.”
Despite plenty of corporate rhetoric about allyship, we’re far from this ideal world. One of the most depressing findings from Manzi’s current (not-yet-published) research is that it can be self-defeating for women to talk about sexism or workplace equity. “Women that downplay the effects of gender bias are really, really favored by men,” she says. “When you have this discourse about the need to advance women—or when we have quota policies—some men might feel a little threatened,” and choose to hire or promote women who say that sexism is solved and “nothing needs to be done.”
Still, she isn’t suggesting women shut up about the whole gender thing. Manzi goes so far as to argue that companies and boards need to impose more quotas, to increase the visibility—and the overall numbers—of leaders who are women and people of color, and to lessen the burden of representation on each individual who breaks through that persistent glass ceiling.
“We need to go beyond the tokens, and the one to three executives that we can name,” she says. “When we have a group of women, you can have the great ones and the bad ones, but everyone is going to be treated the same way—the way that we now treat men.”