Since becoming the COO of Facebook, in 2008, Sheryl Sandberg has managed the social media giant's complex business operations. More recently she has taken on a second, no less public role outside the company as an outspoken advocate for women aspiring to leadership positions. Adi Ignatius talked to one of the most powerful women in business.
Her new book, Lean In - which Sandberg describes as "sort of a feminist manifesto" - is a call for women to act in their own behalf to overcome institutional and personal barriers to success. In this edited interview Sandberg explains why the workplace is ready for a revolution.
Ignatius: What do you mean when you refer to your book as "sort of a feminist manifesto"?
Sandberg: The book is a combination of things. It's partly stories from my own life and experience, partly data and research about gender issues, and partly a call to action by and for women.
Ignatius: Would you describe yourself as a feminist? That word has taken a beating in recent years.
Sandberg: Had you asked me that when I was in college, I would have said I was not.
But I think we need to reclaim the "F word" if it means supporting equal opportunities for men and women.
Ignatius: What's the big idea in "Lean In"?
Sandberg: The book is for any woman who wants advice on how to sit at any table she wants to sit at, and for any man who wants to be part of creating a more equal world. If we could get to a place of true equality, where what we do in life is determined not by gender but by our passions and interests, our companies would be more productive and our home lives not just better balanced but happier.
Ignatius: You talk in the book about reigniting a revolution. How would you like to see that happen?
Sandberg: Women are making progress at every level except as leaders. We started accounting for 50 percent of college degrees 30 years ago, but progress at the top has stalled. For the past decade women in corporate America have held only about 14 percent of C-suite jobs and 17 percent of board seats. There aren't enough women sitting at the tables where decisions are made. Reigniting the revolution means I want us to notice all of this and find ways to encourage more women to step up and more companies to recognize what women bring to the table.
Ignatius: What's the cost to society when women don't pursue their ambitions fully?
Sandberg: Warren Buffett has said, quite graciously and famously, that one of the reasons for his success is that he had to compete with only half the population. The more people who get in the race, the faster the running times will be.
Ignatius: Some have criticized you for essentially blaming women for not being " better," even though many of the challenges they confront are institutional. How do you respond?
Sandberg: Women face huge institutional barriers. But we also face barriers that exist within ourselves, sometimes as the result of our socialization. For most of my professional life, no one ever talked to me about the ways I held myself back. I'm trying to add to that side of the debate. There's a great quote from Alice Walker: "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." I am not blaming women; I'm helping them see the power they've got and encouraging them to use it.
Ignatius: Say more about how women hold themselves back.
Sandberg: One important way, as I write in the book, is that they "leave before they leave." That is, they take themselves out of the running for career advancement because they want to have a family. But in some cases they're making these decisions years in advance - before they even have a partner! That should be a time when they lean in, not pull back.
Ignatius: We're talking a lot about what women do wrong. What do female leaders do well that men should emulate?
Sandberg: I don't believe there are stereotypical forms of male and female leadership. But I think there are things we're encouraged to do as women that can be good for all leaders. Women are often very good listeners. They are often good consensus builders. They can make teams cohesive.
Ignatius: Is the ultimate goal for men and women to become more like each other, or to identify and celebrate the differences?
Sandberg: I think we want to understand the differences and celebrate them. But we need to break down limitations imposed by stereotypes. We don't really encourage women to be leaders. We call our daughters - but not our sons - bossy. We overestimate our sons' crawling abilities and underestimate our daughters'. Women are given messages all through their lives that they shouldn't lead. At the same time, the world still isn't very welcoming or respectful toward full-time-at-home dads.
Ignatius: I've asked female CEOs to talk about the experience of functioning in what is still essentially a boys' club, but they inevitably decline, saying, "I view myself as a CEO, not as a 'female CEO.'" Surely there's a difference worth exploring.
Sandberg: Had you asked me that question five years ago, I would have said the same thing. No one talks about gender in the workplace, because if you say the words "I am a woman," the other person is likely to hear " I want special treatment" or "I'm going to sue you." A man who runs a large organization told me it's easier to talk in public about your sex life than it is to talk about gender. But there are real gender-based issues: how we understand ourselves, how we experience each other. One of my goals is to make gender an open and honest topic in the workplace.
Ignatius: Why do so many highly educated women leave the workforce?
Sandberg: There are many reasons women leave - from lack of flexibility and discrimination to the desire to pursue other goals. The fact that so many women from top schools drop out of the workforce is one of the most important causes of the leadership gap. If we want to balance out leadership roles in the workplace, we have to balance out responsibilities in the home.
Ignatius: The work-life balance can be daunting. I've never met a working mother who feels happy about how she's doing either as a professional or as a mother. What's your advice to women who feel so conflicted?
Sandberg: We have to be realistic about our choices. When we measure ourselves against people at work who don't have other responsibilities, we feel we fall short. And when we measure ourselves against women who are with their children all day, we feel the same way. We need to recognize that we can't do it all, that we face trade-offs every single minute of the day. We have to stop beating ourselves up for not doing everything perfectly.
Ignatius: You talk a lot about the "likability" gap. Why do female leaders score so poorly in that area?
Sandberg: The data show that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Which means that as women get more successful, they are liked less - both by men and by other women. That's because we want people to conform to our stereotypes. And when they don't, we don't like them as much. We expect men to have leadership qualities, to be assertive and competent, to speak out. We expect women to have communal qualities, to be givers and sharers, to pursue the common good. The problem is, we want to promote and hire people who are both competent and liked. And that's just much easier for men.
Ignatius: I think it's fair to ask whether Sheryl Sandberg is a realistic role model. You were top of your class at Harvard, you had a great mentor from early on in Larry Summers, you have a supportive husband who has a great job with flexibility. Your critics contend that you don't understand the struggles most women face in the workplace.
Sandberg: I don't hold myself up as a role model. I'm incredibly fortunate, and I have had amazing opportunities and mentors and support. But the struggles I write about are the ones all women face: the struggle to believe in yourself, to not feel guilty, to get enough sleep, to believe that you can be both a good professional and a good parent.
Ignatius: Why aren't more women finding strong mentors and sponsors?
Sandberg: We need to explicitly encourage men to sponsor women. We keep telling women how important these connections are, so women walk up to virtual strangers and say, "Will you be my mentor?" That's not how it works. You have to find ways to build a relationship. At the same time, senior men in the workplace are afraid to be alone with women, because people might assume something inappropriate is happening. But mentorship is all about being alone with a person and talking one-on-one, and we need to encourage that.
Ignatius: With this book, as with speeches such as your 2010 TED talk on gender, you've become a major spokesperson on this topic. How does that fit with what you do at Facebook?
Sandberg: It's all complementary. Facebook's mission is to allow people to express themselves and connect to the individuals and causes they care about. I care tremendously about Facebook's being the very best place it can be. And since I've become more public on women's issues, we' ve had a great track record of getting amazing women to apply and to stay.
Ignatius: You got a lot of attention for saying you go home at 5:30 to spend time with your kids. Shouldn't we all go home at 5:30 and detach from work?
Sandberg: We should all find ways to do the things we want to do in our lives. I'm not trying to be prescriptive. It's hard to admit that you go home at 5:30, no matter where you are in your career. But I did it on purpose to say to people, "Look, I can be both a mother and a professional, and I do it by going home at 5:30." I also said that after I have dinner with my kids, give them a bath, and put them to bed, I get back online.
Ignatius: You've talked openly about having cried in the workplace. Should women and men feel free to embrace the full range of emotions at work?
Sandberg: Crying at work is not a best practice. I'm not recommending that if you want to get to the top, you should break out the tissues. But we're human, and it's important to broaden the kinds of behaviors that are acceptable at work.
Ignatius: Do you feel that the way women are portrayed on TV and in the movies contributes to an antifeminist backlash?
Sandberg: I think we need to widen perceptions, and I'm not just talking about body-image issues. The media rarely depict working women with children as happy and adjusted and comfortable with themselves. They always sound harried. Tina Fey remembers going on the road with Steve Carell. They were both doing sitcoms and raising kids. Every interviewer asked her, "How do you do it all?" They never asked that of him. There's this assumption that women can't and men can. My goal is to change that conversation.
Ignatius: The media also tend to talk an awful lot about how female executives dress.
Sandberg: I'm lucky I'm not in an industry where that matters. Silicon Valley is awesome; I wear jeans to work almost every day. It's a great place for women, because it really is all about what you build and what you do.
Ignatius: Is there any part of you that wonders whether there are biological imperatives that justify traditional gender roles?
Sandberg: Well, as Gloria Steinem says, this is about consciousness, not biology. We evolve. For example, humans are biologically programmed to be obese. Our bodies were made to store fat and sugar so that we could survive when the hunting season was over. But we can curb this impulse, and we do. Similarly, I don't think the desire for leadership is based in biology. Do we really believe men are natural leaders and women are not? I think the desire for leadership is largely culturally created and reinforced.
Ignatius: Ultimately, it seems that the most critical thing for an ambitious woman is a supportive partner.
Sandberg: It's the single most important career decision a woman makes: Is she going to have a life partner, and is that partner going to support her career? And by "support," I mean getting up in the middle of the night half the time to change diapers.
Ignatius: I assume men are getting better at that.
Sandberg: They're getting way better. But they are still doing far less than half the child care and housework.
Next time you go to a party, watch what happens when a baby starts crying. Watch the parents and see who gets up. Women still largely have two jobs, and men have one.
Ignatius: Do you feel you have succeeded despite being a woman or because you're a woman?
Sandberg: That's a hard question to answer. I've had a lot of luck, a lot of sponsors, a lot of mentors. I've worked hard. But the success versus likability thing has been difficult. When I had my first performance review with (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg, he said, "You care too much about being liked, and it's going to hold you back." I had something I needed to overcome. And in that case it had to do with gender.
Ignatius: The biggest challenge you face in all of this may be the sense that we' ve been fighting the same battles for decades.
Sandberg: Yes. But I think now is our time. My mother was told by everyone that she had two choices: She could be a nurse or a teacher. The external barriers now are just so much lower. If we start acknowledging what the real issues are, we can solve them. It's not that hard. (Adi Ignatius, Harvard Business Review/DER STANDARD, 27.4.2013)
Sheryl Sandberg (born in 1969) served as the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008. In June 2012, she was elected to the board of directors by the existing board members, becoming the first woman to serve on its board. Before Facebook, Sandberg was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google.
Adi Ignatius ist editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review.
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate