In the mother of all book launches, Sheryl Sandberg — the COO of Facebook and a first-time author, though you would hardly know it — was interviewed by TIME’s deputy managing editor Nancy Gibbs at the Time Warner Center in New York City. Sandberg, the cover subject of this week’s TIME magazine, is on a mission to empower women in the workplace. “I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities,” she writes in TIME’s exclusive excerpt of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a book that has gotten a tremendous amount prepublication attention.
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“Thank you for joining us around the bonfire that Sheryl has lit,” Gibbs said in front of a crowd of about 200 that included Katie Holmes, Suze Orman and Lesley Stahl, before launching into her first question for Sandberg: “What has surprised you most about these last few days?”
“I’m surprised by how much attention and how early it has been,” said Sandberg, noting that the book had only officially come out that very morning. “That hasn’t stopped anyone from having an opinion of it,” Gibbs pointed out. “What I’m concerned about is stagnation and apathy, and if a heated debate around a book is what it takes to spark a conversation, then that’s great,” replied Sandberg.
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The conversation quickly turned to stereotypes that continue to hold women back and the Catch-22 of what Sandberg calls women’s success-likability penalty. “As women get more powerful, they get less likable,” said Sandberg. “I see women holding themselves back because of this, but if we start talking about the success-likability penalty women face, then we can do something about it.”
Sandberg returned often to the theme that women face a double standard — if they turn down an assignment, they’re seen as difficult, if they ask for a promotion, they’re seen as too aggressive. Until there’s greater awareness of this bias, however, women might have to work around the problem and do things like “negotiate sweetly” when asking for a raise or a promotion. “People think that women don’t negotiate because they’re not good negotiators, but that’s not it,” she said. “Women don’t negotiate because it doesn’t work as well for them. Women have to say, ‘I really add a lot of value, and it’s in your interest to pay me more.’ I hate that advice, but I want to see women get ahead.”
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When it came time for questions, Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large and executive director of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, pointed out that, in fact, women have been getting ahead. “We have 21 female Fortune 500 CEOs today, vs. just one in 1998,” she said. “It’s important to have role models like you.”
Stahl, a 60 Minutes correspondent, raised the eternal question of nature vs. nurture. “I keep having this gnawing feeling that a lot of this is hardwired. Aren’t you just fighting the way men and women are?” she asked. Sandberg would have none of it. “I don’t pretend there aren’t biological differences, but I don’t believe the desire for leadership is hardwired biology, not the desire to win or excel,” she said. “I believe that it’s socialization, that we’re socializing our daughters to nurture and our boys to lead. We call our daughters bossy and we never call our sons bossy. A friend of mine says that she now stops herself from saying her daughter is bossy and instead says, My daughter has executive leadership skills.”
Gayle King hinted that not all the publicity has been positive. “It saddens me that we as women are at each other’s throats about this book,” she said. “I think you’re opening up the conversation, but I’m wondering how you’re feeling about the criticism from other women.” Sandberg took it all in stride. “This is really personal stuff,” Sandberg said. “But I want this debate to happen, and I want it to happen with men too.”
One issue Sandberg raised is that it’s hard for older men to bring along younger female colleagues without appearing to possibly be having an inappropriate relationship (and that young women in turn make a big mistake by asking senior women who they don’t know, Will you be my mentor?). “This is the elephant in the room, so I’m really hoping men will read the book too.” As she’d said earlier in the evening, “I decided that what I was trying to say was going to help people. So here we are.” Just don’t ask her to be your mentor.