Confidence Woman

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change the balance of power. Why she just might pull it off

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Strategy meeting Sandberg with LeanIn.org team members

Success vs. Popularity

Sandberg learned one of the key lessons in her book during her time in business school (Harvard, again), and not in a good way. After her first year, she won a fellowship. The guys who won all talked about it. But Sandberg sensed it was better to keep quiet. “Female accomplishments,” she writes, “come at a cost.” And that cost is people declining to click on the Like button.

Sandberg often refers to a 2003 experiment that found that students considered a successful entrepreneur in a case study more likable when her name was changed to a man’s. “The data says clearly, clearly, clearly that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” says Sandberg. Finding that out “was the aha moment of my life.” It explains, she believes, why women who will negotiate ruthless deals for their clients will not do the same for themselves. It accounts for why women are less eager than men to trumpet their management triumphs or put themselves forward for leadership positions. Because women are supposed to be nurturing and peacemaking, not aggressive. When she clues in managers on the success-and-likability conundrum, “it completely changes the way they review women,” she says.

Awkwardly, it turns out, women don’t particularly like successful women either. Sandberg points to how quickly people criticized her friend Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who went back to work two weeks after having a child and recently appeared to make Yahoo’s work practices a lot less flexible. “No one knows what happened there,” she says. “I think flexibility is important for women and for men. But there are some jobs that are superflexible and some that aren’t.” Regardless, she believes no man who ordered the same policies would have come under fire the way Mayer has.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

Sandberg, too, has drawn her share of opprobrium. After Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic and former State Department honcho, criticized her in a much-talked-about essay on why women can’t have it all, Sandberg sent her an e-mail, which Slaughter talked about to a newspaper. Sandberg, the reigning world champion in finding a positive thing to say about everyone, initially declined to comment on this episode. The two have now made up.

At least one prominent feminist is supportive. “Every group of people that has been systematically told they were supposed to play a limited role internalizes that role,” says Gloria Steinem. “She’s saying we have to both fight against the barriers and get them out of our consciousness.”

Sandberg’s peers are generally supportive but guarded. “The most crucial thing for a woman to have if she’s going to get to the top is a sponsor,” says Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn from China and a contemporary of Sandberg’s at Harvard Business School. “I was not terribly surprised at Sheryl’s success, because I knew Larry Summers had taken her under his wing.” In fact, after a short stint at McKinsey in 1996, Sandberg went to work with Summers again, this time at the Treasury Department. When he became the Treasury Secretary, she was his 29-year-old chief of staff. “I was hugely lucky, and that explains most of my success,” says Sandberg, “just like every man.”

Her next move, to a small but energetic company called Google in 2001, took people more by surprise. Wayne Rosing, who now runs an astrophysics nonprofit, was vice president of engineering at the time and one of the people who interviewed Sandberg for the job. “She was such a Google type: smart, articulate, passionate and able to work through a problem she had never encountered before,” he says. What Rosing didn’t notice, however, was her passion for women’s rights: “She was just one of the guys, one of the players.” In fact, it was only after she got very sick while pregnant (the Sandberg women all had nine months of morning sickness) that she got the firm to put in special parking spots for expectant moms.

“I never called myself a feminist or gave speeches on women as late as five years ago,” says Sandberg, whose interest in women’s leadership coincided with her joining Facebook in 2008. Until the week before Lean In came out, she was the only woman on Facebook’s board and had been there less than a year, and she’s still the only woman among its top executives. Since the day she took Facebook public in a much hyped IPO, the stock has yet to rise above its offering price; investors are skittish, and advertisers are skeptical. The company needs a steady presence and a cohesive face as it moves forward. This might explain why Sandberg’s nearly omnipresent Facebook handlers are quick to insist that Lean In is not a company project or a distraction and is definitely not Sandberg’s exit strategy. The only time Zuckerberg looked at one of the two p.r. reps present during our interview was when he was asked how irreplaceable she was. He finally came up with: “She has irreplaceable qualities.”

Other employees are less cautious. “I have not thought about Facebook without Sheryl,” says Cox. “That would suck.” He’d respond, he says, by trying to get as good at writing noncheesy thank-you notes as Sandberg is. “If Sheryl were to leave, a bunch of us would say I need to absorb that and honor that,” he says. These people take their social networking seriously.

(VIDEO: Sheryl Sandberg Leans Forward)

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172 comments
Howardpaker
Howardpaker


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CathyOlsen
CathyOlsen

Love this article, it is spot on. I don't understand the whole "easy for her to say with a supportive husband and loads of money"- how do you think she got that?? By LEANING IN! She didn't accept a substandard husband- and she didn't wimp out of career or family achievements. (If you can say 'achievements' when it comes to family). I think too often the issues that the 70's feminists highlighted  (unequal treatment of women in society) has turned into a stagnation- "poor us, what can we do, look how they treat us!". What do you do about it? You have to speak out for what is fair, not accept unequal treatment (even from yourself), recognise your own internalization of unequal standards, and not accept substandard conditions. Too often I hear women who are married, complain to their friends about their husband's lack of help around the house, or how unfair it is that they give up their working lives in sacrifice for a family. Not fair! They should be doing something about it instead of accepting this unfairness and giving up! (I say 'they', but this is what I did too!). Good on your Sheryl Sandberg, and you know, I hope you do run for office!

bdoppes
bdoppes

and furthermore -  - some men do make it 'on their own' - women need HELP  to 'make it' - either with a responsive support system being in that of a mother, father or sibling - or a very 'cooperative' spouse who does nothing without you and you without him  - to be missing any of these support systems - -  you start to  'improvise' the best way you know how to and when you finally realize that most of your family is gone or just does not give a 'hoot' or is smart enough to acknowledge and help and your husband is a self-obsessed man or self-serving geek of sorts -  - you no longer have the 'luxury' to continue to 'profit' - buy appropriate clothing - have time to go to functions and meetings and trips - leaving children in 'good hands' or spend hours and hours on 'hobbies' like gardening and book writing ~ et al et al ~ none of that happens to any WOMAN without true continuous support and inspiration and that my friends - is the way MOST of the women in today's world live!

RobertF
RobertF

Is it so bad fewer women are CEOs in the business world? Perhaps women simply prefer more interesting, creative jobs in science or the liberal arts.

Jean_Grow
Jean_Grow

Belinda Luscombe got it right, with the kind a detail the teacher in me lusts for. “Sandberg is embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism,” as Luscombe says. Good for her and the rest of us. The fact that Sandberg took “too long” to realize she was a feminist, as Emma Brockes of The Guardian states, is reality. I see the same hesitation to embrace feminism in my students. And it is for exactly the same reason Sandberg took her time, because they think equity already exists. Unfortunately, they are wrong. We need to give everyone who wishes, men and women - including Sandberg, the time it takes to find feminism. 

Contrary to many, I do not think Sandberg blames women or “sells guilt.” Nor does she demonize men. In this way she exemplifies what it means to be a feminist. It is true she never has (and doubtfully ever will) experienced what many women, including myself, have had to struggle through. However, that does not negate truths, including how women sabotage themselves. I see this everyday in my students. Rather, she is giving voice to a long needed debate about the unspoken problems that are crippling women in societies across the world. This does not mean every woman will seek the top. Nor does it mean, nor does she imply, that it is easy or for everyone. But it does mean more of us should find the courage to do so, because in doing so we help all women.

I teach and conduct research about the lack of women in advertising creative. On average there are a dismal 15% of women creating the advertising images that we see across the globe, which explains a lot. Further, my students, as well as those of my colleagues, are in large part women (70-80% depending upon the study). This matters greatly – and not just in advertising creative. 

We need to have this dialogue for the sake of the young women and men I teach as well as for the non-college youth I serve as a volunteer. These young people desire equitable educational and employment opportunities and have a passion to give back. Yet, when all too many of them enter the world of work, especially women, they suffocate – constrained by narrow thinking and outdated rules.

It is time to have this discussion out LOUD. Big and bold. It’s time for each of us to speak our individual truths. It’s time for each of us to listen to the individual truths of others. It’s time to make room for everyone, some leaning in and some leaning out. Thanks for keeping this big, bold dialogue going, Belinda!

LauHiengHiong
LauHiengHiong

In recent decades in many countries, much more women than men graduated from university, particularly in fields like literature, education and social sciences. However, like the general American situation, the academic dominance by women has not correspondingly translated into political or career success in relevant domains. In Asian regions at least, cultural expectations for women are much more prominent, persistent and decisive than the American counterpart.

According to centuries-long traditions, women are supposed to function as a ‘background heroine’, assisting their husbands or children to move forward at whatever level in whatever careers. With very few exceptions, this is a typical mindset of most Asian women, poor or rich, illiterate or professional. Under such circumstances, a typical female professional or academic has comparatively less incentive for a senior administrative position, regardless of numerous superior qualities demonstrated – smart, capable, articulate, confident, and ambitious. Any tradition may change course, but it inevitably takes time.

Lau Hieng-Hiong, Hsinchu, TAIWAN

steven.mgarrison
steven.mgarrison

Thumbs up to Belinda Luscombe. She did a great job with this story.

krazykitty
krazykitty

%s That he's honest, not corrupt. He's good people, basically. %s

WilliamBergmann
WilliamBergmann

My prediction is that within 20 years women will have reached true equality in America. There will be equal pay for equal work, half of the executive positions will be women, and half the Nobel winners will be women. 

Men have had there chance at running things and have done a pretty crummy job of it. Women should at least get an equal chance to screw it up.