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Sheryl Sandberg: Facebook’s $1.6bn woman

In tasteful jewellery and killer heels, the 42-year-old is much more palatable to Wall Street than M

For Sheryl Sandberg, 1.6 is about to be an important number. According toForbes, it's the percentage of the world's billionaires who are women who made their own money. It's also the amount, in billions of dollars, she stands to make from Facebook's decision to take its business public.

The social media behemoth's initial public offering (IPO), which is expected to value it at $100bn, will make a lot of people rich - or, in most cases, richer. One of the big winners is David Choe, the graffiti artist who painted Facebook's offices in 2005 and took shares rather than cash to settle his $60,000 bill.

Other investors include Goldman Sachs and its clients, and U2's Bono, who'll be making any chance of personal poverty history with an estimated $1.5bn stake in Facebook. The Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who told the company to drop its definite article, owns 4 per cent. (You know what's cool? Four billion dollars.)

At the centre of this shower of cash will stand Facebook's chief operating officer. Sandberg only joined the company in 2008 but is widely credited with taking it from wide-eyed, dot-com adolescent to a mature, profit-making machine. In tasteful jewellery and killer heels, the 42-year-old is much more palatable to Wall Street than Mark Zuckerberg in his Adidas flip-flops.

It's also possible she's smarter than him: in her Harvard public-sector economics class, she never spoke or raised her hand and yet recorded the top marks. She impressed the tutor Larry Summers so much that he not only agreed to supervise her thesis - on economics and spousal abuse - but hired her as his assistant when he was appointed chief economist at the World Bank. Summers then took her to Washington as his chief of staff when he was made deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton adminstration in 1995. She was just 26.

Zuckerberg isn't even the first billionaire wunderkind she's been drafted in to manage: Sandberg did a stint at the youthful Google as its vice-president before young Mark poached her, four years ago. She quickly grasped that advertisers, rather than users, would make Facebook profitable. The company made exactly $1bn last year, on revenues of $3.7bn.

At the top table

Despite her business brain, however, Sandberg hasn't been sitting in her big house in Atherthon, California, worrying about the IPO. She was in Davos, talking about one of her favourite subjects: women.

For nearly a decade, the executive has made it her mission to increase the number of women getting to the top of public life. She has told audiences at Ted conferences and university graduation ceremonies the same story: out of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Around the world, just 13 per cent of parliamentarians are female. In American corporations, women account for just 15 to 16 per cent of top-level jobs.

Her remedy focuses heavily on women themselves: they must ask for a "seat at the table", fighting for pay rises and promotions in the same way their male counterparts do. (Another statistic: 57 per cent of men negotiate their first salary. Just 7 per cent of women do.) Women should take care not to "leave before they leave": they mustn't mentally downgrade their careers the moment they start thinking about having children. And they must make sure "their partner is a real partner": in relationships where both parents work, mothers do twice the housework and three times the childcare. In Sandberg's case, she arranges with her husband David that one of them will always be around for dinner and bedtime with their young son and daughter. Finally, women must acknowledge - and fight - the way that in academic studies, "success and likeability were positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women". We like tall poppies even less when they have two X chromosomes.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Sandberg's pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, not least that it can only apply to educated western women who already have plenty of advantages in life. Sandberg acknowledged as much in her 2010 TED conference address, beginning: "For any of us in this room today, let's start out by admitting we're lucky." There's also the reality that she hasn't managed to get a seat atFacebook's top table herself: its board is composed of seven men.

Nonetheless, Sandberg's achievements are impressive by any measure. There's even the possibility that she might at last change Silicon Valley's male-dominated culture. After all, 55 per cent of Facebook users are women (and female users engage with it more deeply than men). And perhaps most cheering of all, she doesn't seem to have chosen between "success and likeability": her peers have barely a bad word to say about her.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken