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Public Affairs : 2015 Sandberg Lecture

Sandberg talks gender disparity in the workplace 

By Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 10, 2015) — Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, was guest lecturer March 4 for cadets in the PL300 (Military Leadership) course at Robinson Auditorium. Presented by the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership with the Corbin Forum, Sandberg spoke about diversity, gender equality in the workplace and leadership.

Outside of the tech industry—where she got her start as a Google vice president—Sandberg is probably best known as the author and creator of “Lean In”—which includes two editions of the book, the non-profit foundation and ever-expanding movement that just recently recruited NBA stars and other celebrities to promote “Lean In Together,” an online gender equality campaign geared toward men.

“Lean In” asks the uncomfortable question: why are women absent from so many positions of leadership? At West Point, she said the core to great leadership is being inclusive, which means knowing how to use the full talents of an organization. She said nowhere in the world is this being accomplished.

Sandberg cited that 50 percent of U.S. college graduates in 1981 were women, and yet, after more than three decades 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEO jobs are still held by men. With 5 percent of women leading industry and 20 percent of women representing their states in the Senate, Sandberg said this seems more of a gap than a leap for women.

“And we accept that. It’s happened at Facebook, it’s happened in the Army, it’s happened everywhere, that while we are doing a better job getting women in, we are not doing a good job of getting women to the top and to leadership roles,” Sandberg said. “And that’s a shame because we know that diversity of leadership is one of the things that helps organizations perform better.”

Leveraging Diversity
The Army is currently integrating women into traditionally male-dominated roles. For the first time, six women will attend Ranger School this spring, which has a 45 percent pass rate. Though these Soldiers can earn the coveted Ranger tab they will not be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment. Sandberg said, even if assigned to an all-male unit, West Point graduates will be working with women.

“And no matter what, you will be leading people of all backgrounds and all races. Understanding how to leverage and do the best on diversity will help you grow as leaders and help you outperform,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg is passionate about addressing how women undermine their own rise to the top. That wasn’t always a consideration for her.

Until five years ago, Sandberg said she never imagined being on stage talking about gender inequality or women’s issues, even though she had little to lose as the COO of Facebook and didn’t consider it brave at all giving a speech. However, before her first TED Talk on “Why we have too few women leaders” in 2010, many had advised her it would be a career-killer. She delivered that speech and more after because of the fact it is really hard to discuss these issues publicly.   

Class of 2017 Cadet Emma Spell poses for a photo with Sheryl Sandberg after having a copy of “Lean In” signed by the author. 

Illustrating this point, Sandberg told cadets about a conference call with midshipmen—three men, one woman—determined what leadership topic she would present at the Naval Academy. When she mentioned gender, two of the men declined the suggestion because they’ve heard enough about it and it might be boring to the audience.

“And then they got off the phone but the woman stayed on and she waited until they were gone and she said to me, ‘Please come talk about this…because we can’t, and you just saw why.’ And I understood why she doesn’t talk about it, I really did,” Sandberg said.

As hard as these issues are to discuss, she said the problem doesn’t get better if people refuse to talk about it.

“So, I wish this wasn’t necessary, I wish the playing field were level, but it’s not. Women and people of color face barriers, often hidden, often implicit that others don’t face, and the veil of silence does not even the fields and will not get us the best result,” Sandberg said. “The gender leadership gap, 30-something years of women having 50 percent of the entry level jobs, getting to five percent of the senior level jobs—that’s because of really deeply-held stereotypes.”

Sheryl Sandberg's 2010 TED Talk has generated more than five million views on the TED Talk website; another 1.6 million views have been recorded from the 2013 follow-up talk.

Addressing three biases
Sandberg spoke about three biases—competence, likeability and responsibility—against female performance and how to counteract them.

Performance is systematically underestimated, Sandberg said, because of gender and race bias. If names were taken off resumes, no longer would a Harold Smith have advantage over Harriet Smith. Orchestras conducting blind auditions would hire more female musicians because the bias is taken out of the process.

“When a man succeeds, we believe it’s because of his core skills. When a woman succeeds, we think it’s because she was lucky, worked hard and had help from other people,” Sandberg said. “This is why women apply for jobs when they meet all the criteria and men when they meet 50-60 percent. This is why women get hired when they meet all the criteria. Women get promoted based on what they’ve already proven. Men get promoted and hired based on what they can do in the future.”

Men who rise to power become better-liked and more respected, Sandberg suggested, by men and women alike. Women who become more successful become less liked by women as much as men.

“We promote people who are both competent and liked,” Sandberg said. “And for men, competence and being liked goes together. But for women, competence and being liked conflict. If a woman seems competent she can’t seem nice; and if she seems nice, she can’t seem competent. And it is one of the biggest barriers we face for promoting women in every part of our economy, including our military.”

Bias against female leadership starts young. Sandberg asked how many men in the audience were called bossy as a child. That is usually tagged to girls because boys are expected to take charge.

“I tell people all over the world, the next time you hear a little girl called bossy you walk up to the person who said it with a big smile and say ‘That little girl is not bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills.’ I want to pause for a moment,” Sandberg said, anticipating the laughter from that story. “I have never said that anywhere in the world and not gotten a big laugh. Now I’m going to say it the other way. ‘That little boy has executive leadership skills.’ There is no humor.”

It’s not funny when people expect it to be true; likewise associating bossy to being female is something people can put a stop to, Sandberg said, by not allowing this bias to perpetuate as fact.

The responsibility bias is an age-old one, where men are the providers and women are the caretakers. In today’s economy most mothers work to support a family, yet most housework still falls as the women’s responsibility and, because of that, they have a different approach to careers than men.

Sandberg said mothers are often guilted to staying at home with children rather than working.

“And what’s cruel about it is they have to be at work because their families need their support,” Sandberg said. “They are doing jobs and working the same or longer hours and are just making less money because somewhere along the way they leaned back. I call it ‘Leaving before you leave.’"

To see a photo album from Sheryl Sandburg's visit to West Point, click here.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, was the guest lecturer March 4 at Robinson Auditorium for the Military Leadership course. The event was hosted by the Department of Social Sciences and Leadership and the Corbin Forum.

She learned from the Naval Academy that 80 percent of the female midshipmen already decide before graduating that they will leave the service. That influences the jobs they take, most often opting for support fields like human resources or public affairs—no less important a career, but not one that typically translates into top-level leadership positions for women.

“I am not saying that everyone in this audience wants to be Gen. Caslen,” Sandberg said, referring to USMA's three-star superintendent. “I know how competitive it is and I know that’s not possible. And I’m also not saying I don’t recognize the reality for the women of this audience that a lot of you who get married will marry men in the military and have two very hard careers to figure out. I get all of that. And a lot of you aren’t sure you want to stay in. But what I’m saying is, you might want to. You might. And just in case, lean in. Don’t leave before you leave. Give yourself the option. Because you can always leave, you can always choose a different path. But if you lean too far back on the way in, you will not have that option. And you take that option away from yourselves right now.”

Be the Scribe
The bias of housework extends to the workplace where women often are responsible for the communal tasks, like note-taking.

“I heard here that you take boards…and that the scribes are almost always women,” Sandberg said. “And I heard that when asked why, a group of students said because women have better handwriting. Don’t do that.”

Men should step up and be the scribes and take on more of the supportive tasks. It’s a win-win, Sandberg said, because they’ll appear to be team players and outperform their peers while supporting workplace equality at the same time.

“In order to change it, you have to be willing to acknowledge these biases, talk about them and correct,” Sandberg said. “You have to be willing to say we might be underestimating her because she’s a woman—and by the way—it’s a hell of a lot easier for you to say that about a woman, whether you’re a man or a woman, about than it is for her to say that about herself.”

Beat Navy
Sandberg thanked Col. Diane Ryan for helping to establish Lean In Circles at West Point. The Lean In Foundation promotes these monthly gatherings for men and women worldwide to discuss diversity and equality issues, and provides free online curriculum. She said there are currently more than 21,000 in 97 countries, to include 500 college campuses.

“We’d love you to beat Navy—they have 15, you have seven,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg cited a new study that the U.S. gross domestic product would increase by five percent if women entered the workforce at the same rate as men.

“I want a different world. I want a world of real equality. And that world, I believe, would be happier, healthier, more productive,” Sandberg said.

Q&A with Sheryl Sandberg
During the Q&A session, one cadet wondered if Sandberg was advocating for all women to vocal about equality without first having proved themselves capable to the task. The Company C-2 cadet thought perhaps a “quiet professionalism” approach would be best and let actions attest to one’s ability.

“I’m arguing that everyone should be aware of the systematic biases and adjust, not that women should do all the talking about this,” Sandberg said. “I actually think men need to do a bunch of talking about this. I think all of us want to be judged fairly for our performance and the real issue for women is that it’s really hard to do that when there are these systematic biases.”

Earlier in her lecture, Sandberg said she entered the workforce as she thought was expected—head down, working hard—because discussing the topic of equality, she said, “like I was asking for special favors, whining, about to sue….”

“I was at a Lean In Circle meeting with some senior leaders in the Air Force,” Sandberg said. “And these women, these officers in the Air Force said they’re not scared at all about jumping out of planes, they’re not scared at all about being deployed but they are terrified about bringing up the fact that they are women with their bosses or to their colleagues for fear that the people will think they’re just not tough enough to make it.”

Another cadet said her mother has had a successful career while raising two children but admitted to her daughter if she had the chance early on she would have been more assertive.

“…she said that she found herself censoring herself at meetings, not asking for promotions, not stepping forward,” the cadet from 1st Regiment, 3rd Battalion, said.

When asked if she felt this way, Sandberg said, “Every day.”

“You know, I start meetings by apologizing; I still say the same things women say, ‘I’m not sure, but…’ or ‘I don’t really know a lot about this, but…’ all the time,” Sandberg said. “But it is true to this day I don’t have the same self-confidence that a man who has done similar things would have, and I think that’s systematic. And, sometimes what I say gets … misinterpreted. People who don’t read the book and see the title think Sheryl Sandberg is telling people to lean in and all women to be like men. Nowhere do I say women should be like men. But what I do say is we should understand the biases we have against female performance…and we should correct for those. People in the military have told me they read the chapter I wrote about sitting at the table and took seats at the table they wouldn’t have taken the day before. So, yes, raise your hand, take your seat at the table because it will make a difference. Do it for your mom.”

Overseeing the world’s largest social network that generated more than $11 billion in ad revenues last year, Sandberg was asked by a Co. G-4 cadet how she contributed to that success. Figuring out their business model was a critical factor her team corrected by building the systems of advertising that led to Facebook’s success.

She said one of Facebook’s greatest failure—and one that has since been remedied—was mobile phone compatibility. The social giant simply didn’t translate well to different operating systems that people relied on for mobile networking.

“We had to completely rebuild our products and it cost us a year and that was the first year we went public, and it was brutal, really brutal,” Sandberg said.

Notes of Interest
• Knowing she was speaking largely to students from the Class of 2016, Sandberg said she was confused to also learn these students were “cows.” Fortunately, her entourage to West Point included two graduates — Denise Quigley (Client Solutions Manager; Class of 2009) and Andrew Kletzing (Measurement Partnership Manager; Class of 2003) — who set her straight on the lingo here.

• Sandberg spoke about writing the foreword to retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody’s soon-to-be-released book.

“In that book she talks about the men who helped her—her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her father and her brother all went to West Point. And she would have, but she graduated from college the year they let women in. But in that book she celebrates her father and the role he played. And those are the kinds of celebrations Lean In Together is about. Women celebrating the men who help them achieve and men celebrating why they’re in for equality.”

• In conclusion: “I want to say how much hope I have for your leadership. Because I think a different world would be a better world. If anyone is going to make it a reality—that my nine-year-old son and my seven-year-old daughter have the same opportunities—it could be the people, the cadets, here at West Point.”