Sheryl Sandberg was once in a meeting in New York, pitching a deal, when she needed a bathroom break. Embarrassed, the man to whom she was pitching had to admit he had no idea where the women’s bathroom was. Sandberg wondered whether they had just moved in to the office. No, came the reply, they had been there for a year. “Are you telling me that I am the only woman to have pitched a deal in this office for a year?” Sandberg later recalled. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, or maybe you’re the only one who had to go to the bathroom.'”
Facebook’s chief operating officer (COO) is used to being the only woman in the boardroom – but she doesn’t like it. On Wednesday she joins some of the world’s biggest movers and shakers at the World Economic Forum’s annual shindig in Davos, Switzerland, as one of the six co-chairs. The other five are, of course, men. There will be other powerful women in attendance: German chancellor Angela Merkel will deliver the opening address; Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, is there too. But still the vast majority of those in attendance are men.
If Sandberg has anything to do with it, that is going to change. At last year’s Davos meeting, she held a breakfast to promote women’s causes, a subject she is expected to take up there again, in between adding more of the world’s most powerful people as friends of Facebook.
Sandberg told her bathroom story in a speech at TED, the tech world’s version of Davos. There too she was calling for more sex equality: “The numbers tell the story quite clearly,” she told the audience in Washington DC. “One hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15-16%. The numbers have not moved since 2002, and are going in the wrong direction.”
The same could not be said of Sandberg. This year Facebook is expected to go public, in an initial public offering (IPO) share sale that could value it at $100bn (£64m) and hand its COO her second huge Silicon Valley payday. Her first came at Facebook’s arch-rival: she had joined Google when the search company was in its profitless infancy, and left after its IPO with a fortune in stock options. Google made Sandberg a multi-millionaire; Facebook could now make her a billionaire.
Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Social Network himself, poached Sandberg in 2008. When she joined Facebook, it had 70 million users worldwide and was losing money. Now it boasts 10 times as many users and makes money. Sam Hamadeh, chief executive of PrivCo, a private company analyst, reckons Sandberg holds about 3% or 4% of Facebook, almost guaranteeing she will become a billionaire when the company goes public. She’s pretty much in charge of everything at Facebook apart from the product itself, and has proved a smooth and perfect foil to the geeky, spiky Zuckerberg.
In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life
“She’s the grownup in the room,” says Hamadeh. “Big brands are very risk-averse, especially when they are being asked to put their ads next to user-generated content. Facebook is not just some 27-year-old, it’s also this wonderfully polished woman with amazing credentials – that’s got to be very useful.”
Sandberg also appears to know how to toe the company line. She isn’t on the Facebook board – guess what: no women are – but, in public at least, seems unperturbed by this.
Sandberg seems to have been a grownup from a very early age. She was always at the top of her class, her mother Adele told the New Yorker last year. It had its consequences. “In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life,” Adele said. Her mother could only recall one time when her daughter rebelled. “One day she came home from school and said, ‘Mom, we have a problem. You’re not ready to let me grow up.’
“I said, ‘You’re right.’ The minute she said it, I knew she was right.”
Sandberg studied economics at Harvard, where she caught the eye of Lawrence Summers, the former US treasury secretary who, in one of history’s neat coincidences, had been president of the college when Zuckerberg started Facebook. Summers volunteered to be her adviser in her senior year, when Sandberg decided to write her thesis on the role of economics in spousal abuse. He became her mentor and helped launched her stellar career.
In 1991, Summers became the chief economist at the World Bank, and recruited Sandberg as a research assistant. She then returned to Harvard, earning her MBA with the highest distinction, and joined management consultancy McKinsey Co before rejoiing Summers, serving as his chief of staff when he became treasury secretary under Bill Clinton.
“Sheryl always believed that if there were 30 things on her to-do list at the beginning of the day, there would be 30 check marks at the end of the day,” Summers recalled. “If I was making a mistake, she told me. She was totally loyal, but totally in my face.” She repaid that loyalty when Summers got into hot water for suggesting innate differences between men and women might be one reason that fewer women succeed in science- and maths-based careers. Sandberg wrote that Summers had been “a true advocate for women throughout his career”.
Until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men
When the Democrats lost the 2000 presidential election, Sandberg joined Google. She helped broker the firm’s first big deal, providing search tools for then-dominant internet service provider AOL, and was on her way to becoming one of the most powerful women in business.
At home she has two children – a son born in 2005 and a daughter two years later – with husband David Goldberg, the chief executive of online data firm SurveyMonkey. They juggle their schedules so one of them is always home to feed the children. “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,” she said in a speech last year.
It’s clear that Sandberg believes women, in part, have to take some of the blame for their under-representation at the top level. “Until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men,” she told US talkshow host Charlie Rose last year.
But a career is easier to manage when you have the money to afford help. For most women it’s not quite so simple, says Sekai Farai, a cultural anthropologist at Colombia University who has been studying tech startups. “The tech community is progressive and it is a meritocracy,” she says.
“Everyone can come to the table, but it’s also all about who gets invited. Getting the right introductions, currying favour with people in power is all far more difficult for women. Sandberg had an incredibly powerful mentor; very few women are given that kind of opportunity.”
Men need to take their share of responsibility too, says Cindy Gallop, a fellow TED speaker, and founder of crowdsourcing site IfWeRanTheWorld. “I think Sheryl Sandberg is doing a great job of inspiring women to think differently about how they can progress in business. I’d just like to see Sheryl’s male peers doing the same thing, and a very wide range of them, so that we don’t just inspire women to want to be the next Sheryl Sandberg; we also inspire them to want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and the next Steve Jobs.”
For Sucharita Mulpuru, a tech analyst at Forrester Research, the problem goes back further than that. “Women don’t pursue maths and sciences. If you don’t have a technology background, you are not going to get a startup off the ground in Silicon Valley,” she says.
As Mulpuru points out, Sandberg isn’t the founder, she’s the manager. Like Meg Whitman, the former eBay boss to whom she is often compared, Sandberg is the adult supervisor brought in to manage the talented but temperamental boys.
Whitman turned eBay from a tech junk shop into a global phenomenon. Then she took her billions and started a second, less successful, career in politics. In 2010 Whitman spent $160m in an unsuccessful attempt to become governor of California, outspending the winner, Jerry Brown, six to one. And she is not the only tech leader to jump into politics – former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina also made an unsuccessful bid for a California senate seat.
Perhaps one day Sandberg will prove more successful – though perhaps on a Democratic ticket. She has strong Washington connections and a more winning personality than Whitman or Fiorina. Amid criticism of Facebook’s practices she recently brokered a privacy agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that Hamadeh says was testimony to her political skills. “It should have been much worse for them,” he says.
Reciprocal altruism is her style. When the Sandbergs hosted Barack Obama for a Silicon Valley fundraiser last year, they brought in Lady Gaga too, whose sky-high heels and hair made the event a media sensation.
In interviews Sandberg, inevitably, says she is happy at Facebook, and not thinking about what she wants to do next. But whenever she makes up her mind, she will not be short of the power and influence – or money – to make her goal happen.