Sheryl Sandberg: Passion of a feminist power player

Gideon Spanier meets Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, whose new book on how women can overcome inequality in the workplace has provoked controversy

Sheryl Sandberg tottered into London yesterday, dressed in a shortish black dress with skyscraper black heels to match her jet-black hair. Facebook’s chief operating officer (COO), on a visit to promote her feminist book, Lean In, and check up on the social-media giant’s London office, is widely hailed as the most powerful woman in global technology and she certainly looks the part.

Many think the formidable 43-year-old is headed for a career in American politics after her stellar rise from US Treasury aide in her twenties during the Clinton administration, to top executive at Google, and then Facebook COO, overseeing last year’s $100bn (£65bn) stock market float.

The controversy she has provoked with Lean In, in which she argues passionately that women must work much harder to overcome inequality in the workplace, has underscored how  Ms Sandberg has an appeal that goes far beyond the tech world.

But Ms Sandberg, who is close to President Barack Obama, is adamant that politics is not calling. “I love my job – I’m staying,” she maintains, sitting in Facebook’s Covent Garden offices in central London. Her insistence that she is “not running for office” does not entirely rule out a Cabinet job if one were to crop up in future, of course.

Politics is on her mind given the death of Margaret Thatcher, and Ms Sandberg says it is a useful reminder of how far women still have to go to win true equality.

When Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979, she was the first female head of government of a major Western country. Yet, more than 30 years later, only 17 nations around the world have female leaders, notes Ms Sandberg. There remains a severe lack of women in the lower ranks too as just one-fifth of politicians in parliaments  are female.

It is hard to believe that if Mrs Thatcher were Ms Sandberg’s age now that she would have dressed quite like the Facebook boss, but there is a similar willingess to speak out and  risk unpopularity.

“I’m arguing in Lean In for pretty deep societal change,” says Ms Sandberg, dismissing the hostile reaction her book has received, especially from some women.

The Facebook COO’s theory is that working mothers have to “lean into” their career and do virtually whatever it takes in the office – even though men aren’t expected to juggle their work-life balance in the same extreme way.

“Every time someone is about to call their daughter bossy, I want them to say they’ve got good executive leadership skills,” she says.

 Some critics claim that it is easier for  Ms Sandberg to have it all as a working mother as she is a multi-millionairess who can afford a lot of childcare and other support. But the fact that Lean In has generated so much debate – on both sides of the Atlantic – since its publication a month ago suggests she has touched a nerve.

She is self-deprecating enough to say she was “surprised” at the scale of the reaction.

“If you’re me, why would they read it?” she says – a reference to the fact she was not an established writer.

The main reason why Ms Sandberg matters is that she is the right-hand woman of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and they run what remains the world’s biggest social-networking website, with one billion users. That’s no mean achievement in itself considering how other sites such as Myspace and Bebo have fallen as fast as they rose.

To the doubters who suggest that Facebook’s influence is waning, she counters that 59 per cent of its one billion users come back every day. That compares to 2008, when Ms Sandberg joined and Facebook had only 70 million users, and a lower proportion, 50 per cent, visited every day.

The UK and Europe remains a key market, where engagement levels are even higher, with 63 per cent coming back every day.

“We are growing and expanding and investing in this country and in this market,” says  Ms Sandberg, noting that Facebook’s staff across Europe number more than 1,000.

Things are a little easier now that the company has recovered from last May’s troubled stock-market float when the share price halved.

While the shares have not recovered all their ground, Wall Street likes the fact mobile revenues have surged, representing 23 per cent of turnover in the last quarter against zero a year earlier. American smartphone users spend one minute in four looking at Facebook, according to one recent study.

Even so, it is hard to stay relevant in this fast-changing market. Facebook Home – an app that makes Facebook the homepage on Android phones – has met a lukewarm response since it became available last Friday following a much-hyped launch and it won’t be available on Apple.

Ms Sandberg, who has a habit of crossing her arms tightly as she listens to questions, insisted that the reaction to Facebook Home has been “very positive” from users who have actually tried it.

“People are always sceptical about products that they haven’t used,” said Ms Sandberg, offering a politician’s answer.