Facebook COO urges women to own their assertiveness

Diversity Matters

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At the second of two meetings Sheryl Sandberg had in Minneapolis with fans of her recent book, a few members of a critical audience were present: teenage girls.

One of them was Sarah Borntrager, 16, who listened closely as Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., encouraged a group of female military officers and federal staffers to "lean in," the admonition that became the title of her best-seller that sparked a renewed national conversation on women and workplace issues.

Ms. Borntrager, a junior at Farmington (Minn.) High School and daughter of a woman who is a civilian Air Force financial analyst, said girls too often lean back.

"I see that actually a lot in high school," she said. "Someone who tries to make a stand for something, a girl, will be seen as obnoxious, as if she just keeps rambling, but a guy will be able to get his point across and be listened to. It's something that shouldn't be."

Ms. Sandberg gave the keynote speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the nation's largest annual conference of women in high-tech. The night before her speech, she visited two of the thousands of Lean In circles that have sprung up since her book was released in March. Nearly 300,000 people have registered their support on Facebook for the Lean In Foundation, which receives all proceeds from sales of the book. About 9,000 circles have registered, and many more are active but unregistered.

Linda Brandt, a public health specialist for Hennepin County, Minn., describes her circle as "Girl Scouts for adults," and she hosts a group of about 30 at her home in southeast Minneapolis.

The women -- ranging from photographers to dancers to librarians to advertising professionals -- packed into Ms. Brandt's living room waiting for Ms. Sandberg to arrive. Among them was Ms. Sandberg's mother-in-law, Paula Goldberg, a prominent Minneapolis resident and executive director of Pacer, an anti-bullying group that advocates for children and young adults with disabilities.

When the black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled up to the front of Ms. Brandt's home, the doors popped open and Ms. Sandberg beamed as she started meeting the women. "Oh my God, this is so exciting!" she said.

Ms. Sandberg makes an economic case for the Lean In movement, and she likes to bring up Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of workforce participation by women. Japanese women often stop working when they have a child, and Goldman Sachs projects the Japanese economy could be 15 percent bigger if 8 million more women worked.

"Japan's GDP cannot grow unless they get more women in the workforce," Ms. Sandberg said. "In two decades, three decades, the U.S. could face the same problem."

In order to continue to grow, the United States will need the full participation of the workforce, she said, which will require women to step up and their partners to split the work at home, something that she said is still not happening enough. When it comes to particular firms, any company with strong female leadership has a competitive advantage over those who do not, she said.

"This is about our economic growth," Ms. Sandberg said.

One criticism the superstar Facebook executive has taken since publication of the book is that she's part of the elite. She went to Harvard, was mentored by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and after perfectly timing her transition from Washington to Silicon Valley, became extremely wealthy.

Anna Picchetti, a project manager, said the group at Ms. Brandt's home helps rebut that criticism. The group is racially, demographically and professionally diverse, and the women live in a place that has been rated by Intuit as the fifth-best city in the U.S. for female entrepreneurs. The fact that the group is not elite, yet draws powerful inspiration from Ms. Sandberg, lends a certain grass-roots credibility to the Lean In movement, she said.

The circles can serve whatever purpose the women want, Ms. Sandberg said. They're modeled on microcredit circles and book clubs. "Book clubs with a purpose," she said.

Even in the same occupations, women only earn 93 cents for every dollar men earn, and across the population, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, partly because women tend to choose lower-paying professions. A big part of what explains both discrepancies and the lack of female leadership in the world's biggest companies is that women too often fail to display self-confidence. The result, Ms. Sandberg said: "Women are just as much a part of gender bias."

At the Hopper conference, Ms. Sandberg told her audience to ask themselves what they would do if they weren't afraid, then do it. She admitted that even she occasionally struggles against the impulse to apologize for asserting herself.

Toward the end of the visit to the circle at Ms. Brandt's home, Carolyn Vreeman, also a Hennepin County employee, stood and quickly explained that what she'll take away from the meeting is a commitment to engage more men in conversations about supporting the development of women leaders.

Ms. Brandt broke in, asking Ms. Vreeman to repeat herself, more slowly.

"I'm, like, super bossy; can you get up and do it one more time?" Ms. Brandt said.

Bossy is a word Ms. Sandberg says is too often applied to females, and rarely applied to males, so she seized the opportunity: "You're not bossy," she said. "You just have executive leadership skills."

"The next time you see a little girl, and someone's calling her bossy," Ms. Sandberg said, "walk right up, big smile on your face, and say, 'That little girl's not being bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills.' "


First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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