Confidence Woman

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change the balance of power. Why she just might pull it off

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Strategy meeting Sandberg with team members

Success vs. Popularity

Sandberg learned one of the key lessons in her book during her time in business school (Harvard, again), and not in a good way. After her first year, she won a fellowship. The guys who won all talked about it. But Sandberg sensed it was better to keep quiet. “Female accomplishments,” she writes, “come at a cost.” And that cost is people declining to click on the Like button.

Sandberg often refers to a 2003 experiment that found that students considered a successful entrepreneur in a case study more likable when her name was changed to a man’s. “The data says clearly, clearly, clearly that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” says Sandberg. Finding that out “was the aha moment of my life.” It explains, she believes, why women who will negotiate ruthless deals for their clients will not do the same for themselves. It accounts for why women are less eager than men to trumpet their management triumphs or put themselves forward for leadership positions. Because women are supposed to be nurturing and peacemaking, not aggressive. When she clues in managers on the success-and-likability conundrum, “it completely changes the way they review women,” she says.

Awkwardly, it turns out, women don’t particularly like successful women either. Sandberg points to how quickly people criticized her friend Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who went back to work two weeks after having a child and recently appeared to make Yahoo’s work practices a lot less flexible. “No one knows what happened there,” she says. “I think flexibility is important for women and for men. But there are some jobs that are superflexible and some that aren’t.” Regardless, she believes no man who ordered the same policies would have come under fire the way Mayer has.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

Sandberg, too, has drawn her share of opprobrium. After Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic and former State Department honcho, criticized her in a much-talked-about essay on why women can’t have it all, Sandberg sent her an e-mail, which Slaughter talked about to a newspaper. Sandberg, the reigning world champion in finding a positive thing to say about everyone, initially declined to comment on this episode. The two have now made up.

At least one prominent feminist is supportive. “Every group of people that has been systematically told they were supposed to play a limited role internalizes that role,” says Gloria Steinem. “She’s saying we have to both fight against the barriers and get them out of our consciousness.”

Sandberg’s peers are generally supportive but guarded. “The most crucial thing for a woman to have if she’s going to get to the top is a sponsor,” says Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn from China and a contemporary of Sandberg’s at Harvard Business School. “I was not terribly surprised at Sheryl’s success, because I knew Larry Summers had taken her under his wing.” In fact, after a short stint at McKinsey in 1996, Sandberg went to work with Summers again, this time at the Treasury Department. When he became the Treasury Secretary, she was his 29-year-old chief of staff. “I was hugely lucky, and that explains most of my success,” says Sandberg, “just like every man.”

Her next move, to a small but energetic company called Google in 2001, took people more by surprise. Wayne Rosing, who now runs an astrophysics nonprofit, was vice president of engineering at the time and one of the people who interviewed Sandberg for the job. “She was such a Google type: smart, articulate, passionate and able to work through a problem she had never encountered before,” he says. What Rosing didn’t notice, however, was her passion for women’s rights: “She was just one of the guys, one of the players.” In fact, it was only after she got very sick while pregnant (the Sandberg women all had nine months of morning sickness) that she got the firm to put in special parking spots for expectant moms.

“I never called myself a feminist or gave speeches on women as late as five years ago,” says Sandberg, whose interest in women’s leadership coincided with her joining Facebook in 2008. Until the week before Lean In came out, she was the only woman on Facebook’s board and had been there less than a year, and she’s still the only woman among its top executives. Since the day she took Facebook public in a much hyped IPO, the stock has yet to rise above its offering price; investors are skittish, and advertisers are skeptical. The company needs a steady presence and a cohesive face as it moves forward. This might explain why Sandberg’s nearly omnipresent Facebook handlers are quick to insist that Lean In is not a company project or a distraction and is definitely not Sandberg’s exit strategy. The only time Zuckerberg looked at one of the two p.r. reps present during our interview was when he was asked how irreplaceable she was. He finally came up with: “She has irreplaceable qualities.”

Other employees are less cautious. “I have not thought about Facebook without Sheryl,” says Cox. “That would suck.” He’d respond, he says, by trying to get as good at writing noncheesy thank-you notes as Sandberg is. “If Sheryl were to leave, a bunch of us would say I need to absorb that and honor that,” he says. These people take their social networking seriously.

(VIDEO: Sheryl Sandberg Leans Forward)

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