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'Lean In': Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg Explains What's Holding Women Back

Of all the posters plastered around Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters — "Move Fast and Break Things," "Done Is Better Than Perfect" and "Fail Harder" — Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has a favorite: "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?"

"[It's] something that I think is really important and I think very motivating," Sandberg tells NPR's Renee Montagne. " ... I wrote in my book, what I would do if I wasn't afraid is, I would speak out more on behalf of women."

That book — Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — is something of a feminist call to arms. In it, Sandberg, a 43-year-old former Google executive with two Harvard degrees, is calling on other women, as she puts it, to "lean in" and embrace success. And it has struck a chord. In the weeks leading up to the book's publication on Monday, Sandberg, who has not been known to court controversy in the past, has been the subject of critical op-eds and cranky commentaries.

Sandberg is no stranger to success. Back in 2011, she was named Forbes Magazine's fifth most powerful woman in the world (after No. 1 German Chancellor Angela Merkel, No. 2 Hillary Clinton, No. 3 President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff and No. 4 CEO of PepsiCo Indira Nooyi).

"I thought it was absurd," says Sandberg. "My mother even called to say, 'Well, dear, I do think you're very powerful, but I'm not sure you're more powerful than Michelle Obama,' and I'm thinking, 'Of course I'm not more powerful than Michelle Obama!' " (Obama was No. 8, having dropped from the No. 1 spot in 2010.)

"I was really embarrassed," Sandberg says. "People would congratulate me in the halls at Facebook, and I would literally tell them why it was silly. People would post it on Facebook, and I would call them and ask them to, you know, 'Can you take that off? I really don't feel comfortable.'

"My assistant pulled me into my conference room and closed the door. And she said, 'You're handling this really badly. Stop telling everyone who says congratulations how silly that list is, because you look insecure. You're showing everyone how uncomfortable you are with your own power, and that's not good, so just start saying thank you.' "

Two lines of argument run through Lean In. One of them has to do with how society has changed through multiple generations of feminism. The other has to do with the way society views women — and how that affects the way women view themselves.

Boys, she says, are socialized to be assertive and aggressive and take leadership. Girls? "We call our little girls bossy," Sandberg says. "Go to a playground: Little girls get called 'bossy' all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, 'That's great.' When a woman does that same thing, she'll get feedback that says things like, 'Your results are good, but your peers just don't like you as much' or 'maybe you were a little aggressive.' "

I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That's not the problem. The problem is that women aren't self-confident enough.

This isn't just Sandberg's observation. She cites data showing positive correlations between success and likability for men, and negative correlations between success and likability for women. "That means that as a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women," Sandberg explains. "But I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That's not the problem. The problem is that women aren't self-confident enough."

In Lean In, Sandberg points to an experiment led by Columbia Business School and New York University professors. They gave the students a case study from the Harvard Business School about a successful entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. But half of the students received the case study with one difference. "Heidi" was changed to "Howard."

"Howard came across as a more appealing colleague," Sandberg writes. "Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not 'the type of person you would want to hire or work for.' The same data with a simple difference — gender — created vastly different impressions."

Sandberg's book is full of statistics that reveal how — even in 2013 — women simply aren't making it to the top.

"We've ceased making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world," she says. "In the United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years. Ten years of no progress. In those same 10 years, women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees, and it's translating into more women in entry-level jobs, even more women in lower-level management. But there's absolutely been no progress at the top. You can't explain away 10 years. Ten years of no progress is no progress."

The gender gap is particularly egregious in Sandberg's own industry; women make up less than 18 percent of the ranks of computer science majors.

"What's holding women back in computer science is the exact same thing ... that's holding women back in leadership," Sandberg says. It's something social scientists call "stereotype threat."

"Stereotype threat means that the more we're aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it," Sandberg explains. "So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don't do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off 'M' or 'F' for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren't more women in computer science is there aren't enough women in computer science."

In response to whether Sandberg ever felt "chosen" — as one of the handful of women gifted enough to pass through to the top — she says: "It used to be the case, that ... there was only room for one or two. Women would look at each other in a room and know that because they were tokens only one of them was getting promoted. ... And they were competitive with each other, or at least that's what I've been told."

But Sandberg thinks the situation has evolved and that today's companies and boards are looking to have more women at the table.

"There's a reason why men want to understand the challenges women face," she says, " ... because then they're going to be better hirers, attractors and retainers of women. Warren Buffet has very generously said that one of the reasons he was so successful is that he was only competing with half the population. Companies that use the full talents of everyone — those companies do better."

I want us to be able to choose unencumbered by gender choosing for us.

Some of Sandberg's critics have questioned whether someone who has already made it to a position of wealth and power — who is no longer necessarily tethered to duties at home — can reasonably suggest that other women should follow in her path.

"I don't believe that everyone should make the same choices — that everyone has to want to be a CEO or everyone should want to be a work-at-home mother," Sandberg responds. "I want everyone to be able to choose, but I want us to be able to choose unencumbered by gender choosing for us. I have a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Success for me is that if my son chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, he is cheered on for that decision. And if my daughter chooses to work outside the home and is successful, she is cheered on and supported."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff