When Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook as chief operating officer in 2008, she was 38 and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was 23. The social media platform, then four years old, had yet to make a profit. Zuckerberg courted Sandberg over a series of dinners at her house, where they talked mission and purpose. Her late husband Dave Goldberg (who died in 2015 while they were on holiday in Mexico) told the New Yorker it was “like they were dating”. Sandberg left Google, where she had been vice-president of global online sales and operations, to become the adult in the room at Facebook.
This was before everyone’s grandmother had a Facebook account. The company was still a newcomer run by young men who knew more about building a website than building a business. Sandberg focused on advertising revenue. Three years later, Facebook was profitable and had grown from 130 employees to 2,500. Sandberg knew how to deal with things Zuckerberg didn’t want to, including the company’s response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2012, she became the first woman elected to the board.
Two years ago Sandberg left the company, and last month announced she was leaving the board. Having already sold most of her stake in Facebook’s parent company, Meta – which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram – Sandberg is worth around £1.6bn. The 54-year-old has been associated with women’s rights – a cause for which she continues to campaign – since the release of her 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, an early example of girlboss feminism that was derided by many as tone deaf. Surely “leaning in” – the idea that women should take responsibility for achieving equality, rather than blaming sexist structures – was easier for wealthy professionals like Sandberg, who had the money for a full-time nanny?
Still, Sandberg continues to leverage the term. “I have urged women for over a decade to lean in,” she said without flinching at an event in Westminster, where we met. “Now I am asking people to listen and speak out.”
Sheryl Sandberg was born in 1969 in Washington, DC, to Jewish parents, an ophthalmologist and a French language professor. After graduating from Harvard Business School, she worked as a business consultant and then as chief of staff to Lawrence Summers at the US Treasury before joining Google. Following the success of her book in 2013, Sandberg set up the Lean In Foundation (now the Sandberg Goldberg Bernthal Family Foundation, after her late husband and the man she married in 2020), which advocates for women’s rights globally. It is this work that brought her to London.
Not long after Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, US Jewish and Israeli women’s groups wrote a letter to UN Women. There was evidence, they said, that sexual violence had been weaponised in the attack. It took nearly two months for the UN secretary general António Guterres and UN Women to publicly acknowledge the “multiple reports” of rape that day. In the interim, denialism ran rampant online – and arguably the most powerful woman in tech joined the voices calling for recognition. In December, Sandberg addressed attendees at the UN headquarters in New York. “Silence is complicity,” she said. (Hillary Clinton also participated, via video call.)
This year she has continued her campaign with events in Paris, Berlin and London.
All loss of life in Israel and in Gaza is a tragedy, she said in her opening remarks, aiming carefully for balance. But “we can’t forget what happened just four months ago… Rape and sexual violence is part of how [Hamas] accomplished their objectives.”
Eyewitnesses have come forward with accounts of rape on 7 October. Volunteers who collected bodies reported seeing dead women without clothes, or with their underwear removed. A Hamas operative captured by Israel admitted to being instructed to “sully women”. It is thought the majority of rape victims will have been killed. In November, Physicians for Human Rights, an Israel-based NGO, released a report collating all the publicly available evidence.
The 2002 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, codified rape and other sexual violence as war crimes. Rape was common in the conflicts of the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yugoslavia, as throughout history. “That history is what makes this moment so critical,” Sandberg said. “The ground we gained for protecting women was so long fought [for].” Now, she warned, we risk losing it.
Sandberg, was accompanied to the House of Lords event – which was co-organised and co-funded by the Israeli embassy – by two Israeli witnesses and a US expert on international law. Chief Superintendent Mirit Ben Mayor, a former prosecutor, now spokesperson for the Israeli police, described evidence collected by investigators of the crimes committed on 7 October, including sexual violence. Shari Mendes, who volunteers in an Israeli army unit that identifies and prepares female soldiers for burial, recalled arriving at the Shura army base in southern Israel on 8 October and realising the sheer scale of the atrocities. She described the bodies “oozing liquid”, the floors slippery, the smell she will never forget. Victims were mutilated, and some women had been shot in the vagina. “There seemed to have been a systematic attempt to obliterate their faces,” she said. “They died in agony, these women, we could see that.”
“How long will you keep doing this?” I asked Sandberg as the audience was ushered from the room after the event (Cherie Blair, a friend, had also attended, but left early). “Who knows,” she shrugged. After a day of meetings in London, the Sandberg delegation was headed for more of the same in Germany, but there was nothing planned beyond that, her aide told me. The end goal is to see prosecutions of the sexual violence on 7 October. That could take years.
Asked by an audience member about the role of social media companies such as Meta in addressing the spread of denialism online, Sandberg was quick to admit that the industry she helped create needs to act. “Social media companies have a real responsibility to make sure that their platforms are safe from hate and can be places where people learn the truth. It’s going to cost billons,” she said.
Could Israeli denialism of Palestinian suffering make it harder for their reports of sexual violence to be believed? “I’m not an expert,” Sandberg told me. “I haven’t been [to Israel] yet, I just so deeply believe that we have to be able to see multiple [viewpoints]. This tragedy builds upon decades of tragedy in the Middle East. Lost opportunity after lost opportunity for peace, and that is the only answer. The only answer is two states, side by side in peace, run by people who are committed to peace on the other side.”
Outside, I saw a woman standing on her own in the courtyard. It was Sheryl Sandberg’s mother-in-law, Joan, who told me she was “along for the show”. She worries for the witnesses, having to repeat their story again and again. That afternoon, in fact, they would address the UK-Israel all-party parliamentary group. “It’s their story, and [for it] not to be believed – it’s hard for them.”
Is her daughter-in-law’s campaign succeeding in getting people to listen? “The people who have to be convinced are the people who are having a hard time,” she said, “and I don’t know if we are reaching them.”
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?