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Mon March 11, 2013
Author Interviews

'Lean In': Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg Explains What's Holding Women Back

Originally published on Tue March 12, 2013 4:37 pm

Of all the posters plastered around Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters — "Move Fast and Break Things," "Done Is Better Than Perfect" and "Fail Harder" — Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has a favorite: "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?"

"[It's] something that I think is really important and I think very motivating," Sandberg tells NPR's Renee Montagne. " ... I wrote in my book, what I would do if I wasn't afraid is, I would speak out more on behalf of women."

That book — Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — is something of a feminist call to arms. In it, Sandberg, a 43-year-old former Google executive with two Harvard degrees, is calling on other women, as she puts it, to "lean in" and embrace success. And it has struck a chord. In the weeks leading up to the book's publication on Monday, Sandberg, who has not been known to court controversy in the past, has been the subject of critical op-eds and cranky commentaries.

Sandberg is no stranger to success. Back in 2011, she was named Forbes Magazine's fifth most powerful woman in the world (after No. 1 German Chancellor Angela Merkel, No. 2 Hillary Clinton, No. 3 President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff and No. 4 CEO of PepsiCo Indira Nooyi).

"I thought it was absurd," says Sandberg. "My mother even called to say, 'Well, dear, I do think you're very powerful, but I'm not sure you're more powerful than Michelle Obama,' and I'm thinking, 'Of course I'm not more powerful than Michelle Obama!' " (Obama was No. 8, having dropped from the No. 1 spot in 2010.)

"I was really embarrassed," Sandberg says. "People would congratulate me in the halls at Facebook, and I would literally tell them why it was silly. People would post it on Facebook, and I would call them and ask them to, you know, 'Can you take that off? I really don't feel comfortable.'

"My assistant pulled me into my conference room and closed the door. And she said, 'You're handling this really badly. Stop telling everyone who says congratulations how silly that list is, because you look insecure. You're showing everyone how uncomfortable you are with your own power, and that's not good, so just start saying thank you.' "

Two lines of argument run through Lean In. One of them has to do with how society has changed through multiple generations of feminism. The other has to do with the way society views women — and how that affects the way women view themselves.

Boys, she says, are socialized to be assertive and aggressive and take leadership. Girls? "We call our little girls bossy," Sandberg says. "Go to a playground: Little girls get called 'bossy' all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, 'That's great.' When a woman does that same thing, she'll get feedback that says things like, 'Your results are good, but your peers just don't like you as much' or 'maybe you were a little aggressive.' "

This isn't just Sandberg's observation. She cites data showing positive correlations between success and likability for men, and negative correlations between success and likability for women. "That means that as a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women," Sandberg explains. "But I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That's not the problem. The problem is that women aren't self-confident enough."

In Lean In, Sandberg points to an experiment led by Columbia Business School and New York University professors. They gave the students a case study from the Harvard Business School about a successful entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. But half of the students received the case study with one difference. "Heidi" was changed to "Howard."

"Howard came across as a more appealing colleague," Sandberg writes. "Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not 'the type of person you would want to hire or work for.' The same data with a simple difference — gender — created vastly different impressions."

Sandberg's book is full of statistics that reveal how — even in 2013 — women simply aren't making it to the top.

"We've ceased making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world," she says. "In the United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years. Ten years of no progress. In those same 10 years, women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees, and it's translating into more women in entry-level jobs, even more women in lower-level management. But there's absolutely been no progress at the top. You can't explain away 10 years. Ten years of no progress is no progress."

The gender gap is particularly egregious in Sandberg's own industry; women make up less than 18 percent of the ranks of computer science majors.

"What's holding women back in computer science is the exact same thing ... that's holding women back in leadership," Sandberg says. It's something social scientists call "stereotype threat."

"Stereotype threat means that the more we're aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it," Sandberg explains. "So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don't do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off 'M' or 'F' for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren't more women in computer science is there aren't enough women in computer science."

In response to whether Sandberg ever felt "chosen" — as one of the handful of women gifted enough to pass through to the top — she says: "It used to be the case, that ... there was only room for one or two. Women would look at each other in a room and know that because they were tokens only one of them was getting promoted. ... And they were competitive with each other, or at least that's what I've been told."

But Sandberg thinks the situation has evolved and that today's companies and boards are looking to have more women at the table.

"There's a reason why men want to understand the challenges women face," she says, " ... because then they're going to be better hirers, attractors and retainers of women. Warren Buffet has very generously said that one of the reasons he was so successful is that he was only competing with half the population. Companies that use the full talents of everyone — those companies do better."

Some of Sandberg's critics have questioned whether someone who has already made it to a position of wealth and power — who is no longer necessarily tethered to duties at home — can reasonably suggest that other women should follow in her path.

"I don't believe that everyone should make the same choices — that everyone has to want to be a CEO or everyone should want to be a work-at-home mother," Sandberg responds. "I want everyone to be able to choose, but I want us to be able to choose unencumbered by gender choosing for us. I have a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Success for me is that if my son chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, he is cheered on for that decision. And if my daughter chooses to work outside the home and is successful, she is cheered on and supported."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Sheryl Sandberg has been the subject of op-eds and cranky commentaries in the past few weeks over a book that wasn't even out until today. As chief operating officer of Facebook and before that a top executive at Google, Sheryl Sandberg has not been known to court controversy. But her new book is something of a feminist call to arms and it struck a chord. Here's a woman with two Harvard degrees who's reached the top of the tech industry, and she's calling on other women to, as she puts it, lean in and embrace success.

SHERYL SANDBERG: Welcome to Facebook.

MONTAGNE: We met up with Sandberg at Facebook's headquarters in Silicon Valley.

SANDBERG: So everyone works like this. We're all in these very big open spaces. You'll see no one has any cubicles, offices. There are no dividers between people. So teams can collaborate and talk together.

MONTAGNE: As we walk around, Sandberg points to posters on the wall - posters that spell out the Facebook creed with slogans like move fast and break things.

SANDBERG: My favorite says: What would you do if you weren't afraid? Something that I think is really important and I think very motivating.

MONTAGNE: Well, what would you do if you weren't afraid? Are you not afraid? Come on. You don't seem very afraid.

SANDBERG: I wrote in my book what I would do if I wasn't afraid is I would speak out more on behalf of women.

MONTAGNE: Preparing to speak to us about the book, called "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg got comfortable, crossing her legs beneath her on a big orange chair, and I asked her: Tell us how you reacted when one might think the most amazingly wonderful thing happened to you, which you were named by Forbes magazine back in 2011 one of the five most powerful women in the world.

SANDBERG: So Forbes puts out this list every year of the most powerful women in the world, and they put me as number five on the list. And you know, I thought it was absurd. My mother even called to say, well, dear, I do think you're very powerful but I'm not sure you're more powerful than, you know, Michelle Obama. And I'm thinking of course I'm not more powerful than Michelle Obama.

MONTAGNE: Who wasn't one of those five.

SANDBERG: I think she was right up there, but, yes, not one of those five. And the thing that's important about the story is: I was really embarrassed. People would congratulate me in the halls at Facebook and I would literally tell them why it was silly. People would post it on Facebook and I would call them and ask them to, you know, can you take that off? I really don't feel comfortable. My assistant pulled me into my conference room and closed the door, and she said you're handling this really badly. Stop telling everyone who says congratulations how silly that list is because you look insecure. You're showing everyone how uncomfortable you are with your own power, and that's not good. So just start saying thank you.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are two lines of argument throughout this book, and one of them has to do with changing society. The other has to do with women addressing aspects of themselves. And you have a plethora of studies in this book and some of them suggest how women view themselves. Give us one example.

SANDBERG: We call our little girls bossy. Go to a playground. Little girls get called bossy all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys, and that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says that's great. When a woman says that same thing, she'll get feedback that says things like your results are good but your peers just don't like you as much or maybe you were a little aggressive.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's this study - you're not just saying that, you're not just saying that as an anecdote.

SANDBERG: No. I mean the data shows very clearly that one thing above all, which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. That means that as a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women; and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women. But I want to be clear. I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That's not the problem. The problem is that women aren't self-confident enough.

MONTAGNE: Give us a couple of key statistics as to how women in 2013 have still really not in great numbers made it to the top.

SANDBERG: The blunt truth is we've ceased making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world. In the United States women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years - 10 years of no progress. In those same 10 years, women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees, and it's translating into more women in entry-level jobs, even more women in lower-level management, but there's absolutely been no progress at the top. You can't explain away 10 years. Ten years of no progress is no progress.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about your own industry. And here's a statistic for you: less than 18 percent of computer science majors are women. How do you get more girls and women into computer science so that they can climb the ladder, or what you might call the jungle gym, in one of the few really successful sectors in this country?

SANDBERG: It's such a great question because what's holding women back in computer science is the exact same thing I write about in my book that's holding women back in leadership, which is what social scientists call stereotype threat. Stereotype threat means that the more we're aware of a stereotype the more we act in accordance with it. So stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math, therefore girls don't do well at math and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off M or F for male or female, she does worse on that test.

MONTAGNE: Given that you've made this meteoric rise in two companies that also shot to the top in very short periods of time, you've had powerful mentors. The one that people will probably know is former Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers, also former president of Harvard. Have you ever thought that in a way you were chosen as - there's only room for one or two, and in some sense gifted to pass on through and be one of the few women who get there?

SANDBERG: It used to be the case that exactly as you're saying there was only room for one or two. And women would look at each other in a room and know that because they were tokens, only one of them was getting promoted. There was only room for one of them at that table, and they were competitive with each other, or at least that's what I've been told. Now I think that's different. Every company I know is looking for more women at the table. Every board is looking for more women at the table. There's a reason why men want to understand the challenges women face, address them, because then they're going to be better hirers, attracters and retainers of women. Warren Buffett has very generously said that one of the reasons he was so successful is he was only competing with half the population. Companies that use the full talents of everyone, those companies do better.

MONTAGNE: You speak from a position of a person who you've earned it, but who at this point in time can do pretty much anything you want - well-off, you're not tethered to all kinds of duties at home, and you are running things. Is it realistic to ask or suggest that other women can in some way follow in your path?

SANDBERG: Yeah. I don't hold myself out as a role model. I don't believe that everyone should make the same choices that everyone has to want to be a CEO or everyone should want to be a work-at-home mother. I want everyone to be able to choose, but I want us to be able to choose unencumbered by gender choosing for us. I have a seven-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. Success for me is that if my son chooses to be a stay-at-home parent he is cheered on for that decision. And if my daughter chooses to work outside the home and is successful, she's cheered on and supported.

MONTAGNE: Sheryl Sandberg, thank you very much for talking to us.

SANDBERG: Thank you for coming to Facebook. We're glad to have you.

MONTAGNE: Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook. Her new book, out today, is "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.