In May, Sheryl Sandberg was most concerned with the futures of the graduating class at Barnard College. "A key part of what Sheryl does in her life is helping people advance, to be seen and to be heard," David Fischer, who was her deputy at the Treasury Department, and has worked for her at Google and now at Facebook, says.
Her Barnard graduation speech, delivered without notes but with the assistant of a professional coach who worked with Sandberg on honing her delivery, made familiar points about inadequate female representation in leadership positions, about the importance of a life partner to share responsibilities of the home, about "leaning in" and "do not leave before you leave." Remember this, she said, "You are awesome."
Sandberg went on, "Don't let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face--and their will be barriers--be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold. I promise that you will never know what you're capable of unless you try. You're going to walk off this stage today and you're going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high....Go home tonight and ask yourselves, What would I do if I weren't afraid? And then go do it! Congratulations."
At Harvard, Sandberg had graduated first in the economics department. At her Phi Beta Kappa induction, there were separate ceremonies for men and women. At hers, a woman gave a speech called "Feeling Like a Fraud." During the talk, Sandberg looked around the room and saw people nodding. At every stage of her time in school, Sandberg thought, I really fooled them. There was "zero chance," she concluded, that the men in the other room felt the same.
Sandberg says she eventually realized that women, unlike men, encountered tradeoffs between success and likability. The women had internalized self-doubt as a form of self-defense: people don't like women who boast about their achievements. The solution, she began to think, lay with the women. She blamed them more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism.
Sandberg joined Google in late 2001. Her title was business-unit general manager, even though there were no business unit. At the time, Google had four people working on AdWords, a program for selling the small text ads that appear next to related search results. Sandberg volunteered to oversee sales and operations for the project. Before long, AdWords was making money. Soon, Sandberg was working on AdSense, which placed advertisements on external Web sites, with Google taking a slice of the revenues. In 2002, when AOL made Google its search engine, in return for which Google agreed to pay at least a hundred and fifty million dollars annually, Sandberg help oversee the arrangement. Marissa Mayer, who was the first female engineer to be hired by Google, says, "She got the AOL deal running. She was tough and she was fearless."
Sandberg fell in love with Dave Goldberg, her longtime best friend, and the two were married in 2004. Their first child was born in 2005. She struggled with her own work-balance, and developed a sense that too many women at Google and elsewhere were dropping out of the workforce after becoming mothers, in part because they had not pushed to get a job they loved before they began having children.
In her six years at Google, she had hired scores of male and female executives , but, she says, "the men were getting ahead. The men were banging down the door for new assignments, promotions, the next thing to do, the next thing that stretches them. And the women--not all, most--you talked them into it 'Don't you want to do this?'"
Last December, Sandberg spoke at the TEDWomen conference. Her black hair framed her angular face and reached her shoulders. Sandberg began by celebrating the progress women have made: "For any of us in this room today, let's start out by admitting we're lucky. We don't live in the world our mothers lived in, our grandmothers lived in, where career choices for women were so limited."
Before speaking at TED, Sandberg sent a draft of her speech to Gloria Steinem, who is a friend. Steinem described it to me as "terrific," a "summary of what we both want--a world where half of homes are run by men, especially raising children, and half our institutions are run by women, especially armies."
By June, Sandberg's TED talk had been viewed more than six hundred and fifty thousand times.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who directs the Gender and Policy program at Columbia, read Sandberg's speech and took exception. "I think Sandberg totally underestimates the challenge that women face," she says. She believes that Sandberg is insufficiently aware of this problem because she has benefited from sponsors: "Sandberg, to her great credit, had Larry Summers. She has had sponsors in her life who were very powerful, who when to bat for her. That's very rare for a woman."
If some critics say that Sandberg believes too strongly in the power of women asserting themselves, there are friends who ask whether she herself may not always be aggressive enough. Sandberg said about this issue, "The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home... Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. Most couples operate that way--not all. That fundamental assumption holds women back." The second impediment is guilt, she said. "I feel guilty working because of my kids. I do. I feel guilty. In my TED talk, I'm talking to myself, too. I'm not just talking to other people. I have faced every one of those things myself."
Sandberg tells women executives to be more flexible in institutional problems and stepping "into leadership roles." "But much too much of the conversation is on blaming others, and not enough is on taking responsibility ourselves."
Source: The New Yorker, July 11, 2011
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