On Friday April 5th I attended a Breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg, hosted by New England Venture Capital Association at The Harvard Club of Boston (#NEVCASandberg). The event sold out in 3 hours, and Sheryl was doing 20 speeches in 12 days in the U.S., then flying to Europe to do the same. I consider myself lucky to have been able to join and I made sure to get a first row seat.
I had tried to stay unbiased not having read the book but having read a myriad of opinion pieces both positive and negative about its messaging. But I have to say, Sheryl was honest, provocative, and inspirational.
Contrary to what Beyonce sings, the blunt truth is that men still run the world. Seventeen of the 195 independent countries in the world are led by women; 20% of seats in parliaments around the world are held by women; 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women; 14% of executive officer positions, 17% of board seats, and 18% elected congressional officials are women. This means that when it comes to making important decisions that affect the world, women's voices aren't equally heard. And while great strides have been made to close the gap, in the last 10 years advances have been stagnant - we're flatlining. In 1970 women made 59 cents to every dollar men made. Now it's stagnant at 77 cents to the dollar.
Sheryl attributes the disparity to two things: 1) external / institutional barriers 2) internal barriers / cultural stereotypes we're raised with and have internalized; and she proposes four steps towards an honest and open commitment to making a change.
Before you read this, keep the following in mind: Even though this is a passion point for her, even Sheryl admits to being guilty of her own inner stereotypes. She says we're all guilty of it, so she isn't pointing fingers. She also explains that she understands and appreciates that not all women have ambitions to lead companies or countries, and highly values other life choices. She does, however, think that a balanced world, where more men take on traditionally female roles, will be a better place. Only 4% of stay at home parents are men. In order for there to be more equality in the working world, we will have to encourage men to be nurturers and stay at home. She advocates for families with better balance: with more active fathers and more equality in the household and job duties, claiming they are happier. In fact she is public about saying that one of the best ways to have sex with your wife is to do the laundry.
So, what are the four steps Sheryl advocates for in order for women to "lean in?"
1) Push back on the stereotypes and give women more opportunities for advancement.
Sheryl asked the crowd the following question first to the women, then to the men: "Who has been called too aggressive at work?" Around 25 women raised their hand and only 3 men did. She says that success and likability are correlated positively for men and negatively for women. She explains that simply knowing that and being actively aware of it allows us to change it.
2) Take a seat at the table (as a woman) and as a man, encourage women to do so.
Sheryl explains that more women sit on the side and in the back of the room, and men sit in the front and center. Similarly, men rate themselves higher and women rate themselves lower: When asked about their success, men attribute it to their own talents, while women attribute success to luck, help from others, and hard work. Another example is that women raising money will ask for what they need, not more, and end up with less. Men will ask for more and end up with what they need. Men take more risks than women.
The point here is that we need to know that women will underestimate themselves and go out of our way to tell them to reach for opportunities. It's hard to teach this and it's hard to notice it because of its subtleties. We can change institutions, but at the end of the day, the people who can help women reach for new opportunities are women themselves, so take a seat at the table, raise your hand and be heard!
3) Make access equal.
Mentorship and sponsorship is key to career growth. One thing we can do is be sure women are receiving just as much of this kind of support as men.
4) Help women navigate the child bearing years.
The law says you can't discriminate against women for being pregnant, but people don't talk about this as much as they should. There should be an open and honest dialogue. Companies and their leaders should help women take a leave and come back. Be clear and flexible about your policies.
An example Sheryl shared was that she didn't realize the importance of reserving a few parking spaces close to an office building for pregnant women until she herself was in the latter part of her pregnancy. Her feet were swollen, killing her, and she was constantly nauseous. Google's employees had gone from hundreds to thousands in a short time, and finding close parking had become difficult. One day she had to rush to a meeting and was uncomfortable and suffering. She marched into Larry Page's office and demanded pregnancy parking and the request was quickly granted. But both parties were ashamed that they had never even thought of this.
The messaging again here is that awareness is key. Being proactive about supporting women is necessary for growth. Make your policies public, and you'll gain positive branding and attract new talent while you're at it.
Sheryl has set up a community on leanin.org. She encourages us to join lean in circles, stay engaged, and to not do it alone. Talk about it - we should all become more honest and open about having this dialogue, but her hope is that this conversation becomes ACTION. The website has a platform which encourages women and gives them the tools to create circles that meet regularly to support one another. There are also 20 minute lectures from Stanford University's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research on topics such as: power & influence, negotiation, team dynamics, leadership, etc. There's company level partnership on leanin.org as well: again, make it known that your company is a part of this.
As far as today's children are concerned, she suggests putting girls in computer science programs. She sees that as the future of the world and technology jobs pay more. Sheryl explains that one of the reasons that we don't have more women leaders is that there aren't enough women leaders now. If we've had stagnation for 10 years, people need to worry about this and act quickly.