Friday I had the opportunity to see Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speak at the Harvard Club of Boston. She was in town to promote her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Let me preface my comments with a preface:
1. Lean In the book had its roots in Sheryl’s 2010 TED talk. I’ve watched it a few times and shared it with a few important young women and teenagers in my life. I even referenced it in a talk I gave at Digitas once. But I hadn’t followed the more recent discussion around the subsequent book because, well, I’m busy. Much as I liked the original talk, I had encoded Sheryl’s book as the kind of gender-specific discussion that annoys me. As my friend Erika Napoletano wrote last week, “It’s time for the conversation to shift away from gender and to lean towards talent.” Yeah. What she said.
2. I’m incredibly busy at work these days, and catching Sheryl for breakfast meant I had to get up at the crack of crack, get dressed in grownup clothes, and sacrifice a few productive morning hours. That doesn’t sound like a big sacrifice, maybe, but it was. I suppose you could say that I had my own little Lean In moment of the day just getting out of bed.
3. Uncharacteristically (especially given #2), I parked myself in a seat right up front and center, almost directly in front of Sheryl. The seat was in the HubSpot section, the company that had graciously allowed me to come as their guest (thanks, Laura!) Dammit, if I’m up, dressed, and here… I’m going to get the best experience possible. Second Lean In moment of the day.
4. Finally, I started this post thinking it would be an email to a few young women and teenagers in my life who I wish had been with me. (This means you, Colleen, Amanda, Caroline!) Then I decided to share it more widely. There was such a great vibe in the room after Sheryl’s talk yesterday that I wanted to invite everyone there to a bar so we could hang out and talk. I suppose this post is my attempt at that.
Generally, Sheryl comes across at funny, smart, self-deprecating—qualities I happen to value in people. She was pretty clear on her objectives with her book: Shining a light on the lack of women in leadership roles to figure out why that’s so, with the ultimate goal of changing the data. But despite the serious topic, she doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously. Which I appreciate.
Some thoughts, with quotes from yesterday morning:
Jo gives a shout out to Sheryl’s parents, Joel and Adele. They stand and beam at the room. It’s a sweet moment, not just because I’m imagining how full their hearts must be to so palpably witness their daughter’s success.
But because, at the same time, it immediately gives context to Sheryl as a person. We’re all someone’s child, of course. But she’s not just someone’s child: She’s the daughter of those two people, sitting right there. Lean In has attracted spirited discussion, because the issue of women and work, Sheryl later acknowledged, is personal. Her parent’s presence underscores that point: This is a personal issue for us.
“The blunt truth is, men still run the world, and I’m not sure that’s going so well.” —Sheryl Sandberg
This gets a laugh. But, more important, she supports her point with data: 30 years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the US, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions. Only 21 Fortune 500 CEOs are women… women hold 14 percent of executive officer jobs… 20 percent of our Congressmen are women… 17 percent of corporate board seats are held by women… women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make. Like all good content, her talk—and book—are rooted in fact, not merely opinion. Not just feeling. And the data tells the story that something is off.
I feel like I want to repeat that last line, for emphasis. So I will: Like all good content, her talk—and book—are rooted in fact, not merely opinion. Not just feeling. And the data tells the story that something is off.
“Progress turns with every woman who leans in. And… with every man who leans in.” —Sheryl Sandberg
This audience is overwhelmingly female; perhaps 20 percent of the audience is male (including, surprisingly for me, my friend Jerry, a venture capitalist.) More data here: Most mothers handle 40 percent more child care and 30 percent more housework than fathers… just 9 percent of people in dual-career households say they equally share parenting and household jobs… public policy reinforces the gender bias. Her bottom line: At home, make your partner an equal partner.
In the book, Sheryl adds: Avoid “maternal gatekeeping,” the impulse women have to tell fathers, “That’s not how you cut a sandwich! Just let me do it.” Or insert almost any task for the “sandwich” business.
That sounds dumb… but, actually, I’ve been controllingly guilty of it. I grok the need for a mother to be at the nerve center of a family, and I suspect that my impulse isn’t unique to me.
My female friends often carry some measure of maternal guilt—in that they could be better somehow as a mother (more responsive, or more loving, or somehow more more). Very few of my men friends appear to harbor that same guilt. Or maybe they just don’t express it. As Sheryl said, women tend to predict their success at slightly below average; men tend to predict it as slightly above average. She was talking about the school and the workplace, but I wonder whether it applies to parenting. And life, for that matter.
“No one is more efficient and effective than a mother.” —Sheryl Sandberg
She was kind of kidding here. But only just. Since Sheryl’s audience yesterday was stuffed with people from VCs and tech startups, she suggested that the people in the room are those who can lead the charge to help women navigate through the childbearing years. Many companies try to essentially ignore the topic, because they fear they’ll discriminate. “That’s not working,” she said.
Her sound bit got a round of applause. But the soundbite felt a little like pandering. Clearly mothers are capable and productive. But so are fathers. So are women who don’t have children of their own. It seems slightly counter to the notion above, that we need to stop encoding based on gender, and more on talent and potential.
“If you have daughters, put them in computer scientist programs, get them an iPad, let them play more computer games.” —Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl recounts a story about enrolling her seven-year-old son in a computer programming class. Even in Silicon Valley, only 5 of the 35 enrolled children were girls (and two of them had been urged by Sheryl to take the class). I think of my own daughter, who has an interest in and affinity for technology. And I have a pang of realization that I’ve never suggested she lean into that, although I suspect it was more to do with my own humanities bias than a gender bias. But ,then again, maybe not. Now I’m alternating between tweeting sound bites and texting them to my teenage daughter, who I very much wish were here.
“People who can most help women reach for opportunities are the women themselves.” —Sheryl Sandberg
Feeling smug because I sat in that front-row seat. Realizing that’s not quite what she means. But still, I’ve had moments of sitting on the edge, figuratively speaking. I’ve had moments – some quite recent – of conceding the floor to a (generally louder, more aggressive) man. Make a mental note to pay closer attention to my own behavior.
“When you want to change things, you won’t please everyone.” —Sheryl Sandberg
Great perspective on being effective vs. being “liked,” and one that resonates with me because I tend to be a pleaser. Your point of view will probably tick off somebody off, Sheryl says.
I think there’s a middle ground to this one: There’s an ocean of difference between being an opinionated asshole and opinionated consensus-builder. I wish more of us fell into the latter group. (And by “more of us” I mean “human beings.” Not “people in this room” or “women.”)
“I hope my book is just the beginning.” —Sheryl Sandberg
The goal of her book, she said, was to start a conversation, not to present a simple and neat solution to a complex problem. I’ve seen the signs she references that are pasted around Facebook’s Menlo Park offices: “Perfect is the enemy of good” (Voltaire) and “Done is better than perfect.” From that same spirit comes Lean In, because the first step to change is… well, a step.
Ultimately what does Sheryl want? “I’d like to see the data change.” Yup.
I started out this post admitting that the gender-specificity of Lean In troubles me a little. But the data tells the story that something is off. And I think the book is igniting a discussion worth having—for both our daughters and our sons.
I come to terms with it like this: I interpret that Sheryl’s broader message is that we need to challenge our assumptions and expectations both with our (collective) sons and with our daughters, to create more opportunities for people, period. In that way, Lean In seems the next iteration of something Anna Quindlen wrote 25 years ago: “Have you ever noticed that what passes as a terrific man would only be an adequate woman?”
Sheryl’s is a far more evolved message. And, ultimately, it’s far more positive.