In Silicon Valley, the term “unicorn” is used to describe privately held startups that reach a valuation of over $1 billion. When the term was first popularized in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, there were just 39 such companies, representing a vanishingly small fraction of all startups: 0.07%. At the time, Facebook was the only “super-unicorn” (worth more than $100 billion) to emerge from the preceding decade. It’s fitting, then, that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — the person largely responsible for the revenue behind that huge valuation — had been figured as a kind of super-unicorn herself: the rare woman capable of wielding power while preserving her likability.
At Harvard, she took a class from Larry Summers, which yielded a foundational story of the Sandberg myth: The entire semester, she didn’t say a word. Didn’t raise her hand, didn’t come to office hours, never outed herself as a know-it-all. But she turned in the best midterm exam in class, and the best final. Summers agreed to oversee her thesis; after graduation, he hired her to come work for him at the World Bank. “She always had … the ability to lead people down any path, and always for good,” one of her former professors told the Harvard Crimson. She was superwoman.
Many, many feminists begged to differ. Dozens of critics and researchers have underlined the flaws in Lean In, focusing especially on its narrow focus on women who are heterosexual and/or already occupy the upper echelons of the class hierarchy. But the overarching feminist critique of the text is straightforward: It doesn’t actually challenge the status quo, or patriarchal control of it. It just tells women how to better manipulate the existing system
By asking nicely, with an aerobic instructor’s smile on her face, for the mere semblance of equal treatment, Sandberg became a global celebrity — what cultural theorist Leo Lowenthal calls an “idol of production.” Zuckerberg was seen as an innovator, as was Steve Jobs — men who slotted into the long history of celebrated male entrepreneurs and inventors. But Sandberg’s primary skill was leadership. Getting things done. “For all her success, she’s nothing like a man,” Time magazine declared in 2013. “She may currently have thousands of people saying ‘Right!’ to her, but she’s refined her technique since elementary school. Now it blends an overwhelming amount of data with a weapons-grade ability to nurture and an exquisite organizational acumen.” If she couldn’t complete a task, she’d poach someone who could. She was “ruthlessly prioritizing,” as she likes to say, but not busting any balls along the way.
in blaming, or even hating, her — without situating her within the larger context of Silicon Valley, the demands of venture capital, and the logic of the stock market — she becomes something just as mythical as she was before: a supervillain.