Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders (Transcript)

November 29, 2014 7:14 am | By More

“As the COO at the helm of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg juggles the tasks of monetizing the world’s largest social networking site while keeping its users happy and engaged.” – TED.com

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Sheryl Sandberg – COO, Facebook

So for any of us in this room today, let’s start out by admitting we’re lucky. We don’t live in the world our mothers lived in, our grandmothers lived in, where career choices for women were so limited. And if you’re in this room today, most of us grew up in a world where we had basic civil rights, and amazingly, we still live in a world where some women don’t have them.

But all that aside, we still have a problem, and it’s a real problem. And the problem is this: Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly. 190 heads of state — nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women.

In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats — tops out at 15%, 16%. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction. And even in the non-profit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top: 20%.

We also have another problem, which is that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. A recent study in the U.S. showed that, of married senior managers, two-thirds of the married men had children and only one-third of the married women had children.

A couple of years ago, I was in New York, and I was pitching a deal, and I was in one of those fancy New York private equity offices you can picture. And I’m in the meeting — it’s about a three-hour meeting — and two hours in, there kind of needs to be that bio break, and everyone stands up, and the partner running the meeting starts looking really embarrassed. And I realized he doesn’t know where the women’s room is in his office.

So I start looking around for moving boxes, figuring they just moved in, but I don’t see any. And so I said, “Did you just move into this office?”

And he said, “No, we’ve been here about a year.”

And I said, “Are you telling me that I am the only woman to have pitched a deal in this office in a year?”

And he looked at me, and he said, “Yeah. Or maybe you’re the only one who had to go to the bathroom.”

So the question is, how are we going to fix this? How do we change these numbers at the top? How do we make this different?

I want to start out by saying, I talk about this — about keeping women in the workforce — because I really think that’s the answer.

In the high-income part of our workforce, in the people who end up at the top — Fortune 500 CEO jobs, or the equivalent in other industries — the problem, I am convinced, is that women are dropping out. Now people talk about this a lot, and they talk about things like flextime and mentoring and programs companies should have to train women. I want to talk about none of that today, even though that’s all really important.

Today I want to focus on what we can do as individuals. What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women who work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?

Now, at the outset, I want to be very clear that this speech comes with no judgments. I don’t have the right answer. I don’t even have it for myself.

I left San Francisco, where I live, on Monday, and I was getting on the plane for this conference. And my daughter, who’s three, when I dropped her off at preschool, did that whole hugging-the-leg, crying, “Mommy, don’t get on the plane” thing. This is hard. I feel guilty sometimes. I know no women, whether they’re at home or whether they’re in the workforce, who don’t feel that sometimes. So I’m not saying that staying in the workforce is the right thing for everyone.

My talk today is about what the messages are if you do want to stay in the workforce, and I think there are three.

One, sit at the table. Two, make your partner a real partner. And three, don’t leave before you leave.

Sit at the table

Number one: sit at the table. Just a couple weeks ago at Facebook, we hosted a very senior government official, and he came in to meet with senior execs from around Silicon Valley. And everyone kind of sat at the table. And then he had these two women who were traveling with him who were pretty senior in his department, and I kind of said to them, “Sit at the table. Come on, sit at the table,” and they sat on the side of the room.

When I was in college my senior year, I took a course called European Intellectual History. Don’t you love that kind of thing from college? I wish I could do that now. And I took it with my roommate, Carrie, who was then a brilliant literary student — and went on to be a brilliant literary scholar — and my brother — smart guy, but a water-polo-playing pre-med, who was a sophomore.

The three of us take this class together. And then Carrie reads all the books in the original Greek and Latin, goes to all the lectures. I read all the books in English and go to most of the lectures. My brother is kind of busy. He reads one book of 12 and goes to a couple of lectures, marches himself up to our room a couple days before the exam to get himself tutored.

The three of us go to the exam together, and we sit down. And we sit there for three hours — and our little blue notebooks — yes, I’m that old. And we walk out, and we look at each other, and we say, “How did you do?”

And Carrie says, “Boy, I feel like I didn’t really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic.” And I say, “God, I really wish I had really connected John Locke’s theory of property with the philosophers who follow.”

And my brother says, “I got the top grade in the class.”

“You got the top grade in the class? You don’t know anything.”

The problem with these stories is that they show what the data shows: women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low.

Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce. A study in the last two years of people entering the workforce out of college showed that 57% of boys entering, or men, I guess, are negotiating their first salary, and only 7% of women. And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors.

If you ask men why they did a good job, they’ll say, “I’m awesome”. Obviously. Why are you even asking?

If you ask women why they did a good job, what they’ll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.

Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success.

I wish the answer were easy. I wish I could just go tell all the young women I work for, all these fabulous women, “Believe in yourself and negotiate for yourself. Own your own success.” I wish I could tell that to my daughter.

But it’s not that simple. Because what the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. And everyone’s nodding, because we all know this to be true.

There’s a really good study that shows this really well. There’s a famous Harvard Business School study on a woman named Heidi Roizen. And she’s an operator in a company in Silicon Valley, and she uses her contacts to become a very successful venture capitalist.

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