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.
Her 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 with Harvard Business Review’s editor in chief, Adi Ignatius, Sandberg explains why the workplace is ready for a revolution.
HBR: 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.
You talk in the book about reigniting a revolution. How would you like to see that happen?
Women are making progress at every level except as leaders. We started accounting for 50% 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% of C-suite jobs and 17% 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.
What’s the cost to society when women don’t pursue their ambitions fully?
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.
Say more about how women hold themselves back.
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.
Is the ultimate goal for men and women to become more like each other, or to identify and celebrate the differences?
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.
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.
You talk a lot about the “likability” gap. Why do female leaders score so poorly in that area?
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.
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?
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.
Do you feel that the way women are portrayed on TV and in the movies contributes to an antifeminist backlash?
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.
Read more at hbr.org