One of the most daunting aspects of being a female in the technical fields is the dearth of female role models.
Growing up at my elementary school, I dreaded the inevitable biography book report. I always got Marie Curie. No slight to Madame Curie, but I couldn’t help but shudder to think that the only techy female role model my teachers could dig up for me died 80 years ago. Painfully. Of radiation poisoning. The prospects seemed bleak for a ten-year-old girl who liked science.
Leading Ladies of Tech
Enter Sheryl Sandberg. The Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and former vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, Sandberg is one of the most influential women in the world. She and a new generation of women leaders in tech – like Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer (Stanford B.S. in SymSys) – have shown young women everywhere that female leadership is no mere possibility, but also a necessity for an egalitarian society.
Sandberg’s credentials make her a prime role model and spokesperson for the modern feminist movement. Her modest autobiographical Twitter bio of “mother of 2, wife of awesome guy, friend to many great women” belies her professional accomplishments and impact. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard and receiving her MBA from Harvard Business School, she worked with the World Bank and served as Chief of Staff for the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton years. She’s now #10 on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
Sandberg only recently tackled issues of gender in leadership, but has done so with gusto. Her famous TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders” has over 2 million views, and her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has been translated into 24 languages.
The Bad News
Sandberg opened the talk with a sobering description of the state of women in modern leadership.
The blunt truth is that men still run the world. Unequivocally, no question about it.”
No country in the world has over 5% of its large companies run by women. Only 17 nations have women leaders. 20% of the Senate is female. And, still worse, the women’s movement has had “ten years of exactly no progress.”
Why is this so? Sandberg tackled the main obstacles facing women today:
- Self confidence: believing in yourself is a determinant of what you can do. “If you attribute success to yourself, it’s replicable.”
- Leadership ambition: we need more young women with leadership ambition. “Raise your hand, sit at the table, own your success.”
- Balancing parenting: Sandberg argued that too many women start mentally preparing for parenthood much too early, and that this causes women to make self-limiting choices early on. She suggested that women keep their options open and only “make the hard choices when you have to make them.”
Sandberg also referenced the “likability penalty” that women often face. Simply put, as men get more successful, they are better liked, but as women get more successful, they are less liked. She referenced numerous women seeking promotions and positions who had been turned away for being “too aggressive” – a trait generally considered desirable in male leaders.
What a waste of human talent – 50 percent of the population was pushed off into the corner for 200 years…. we still have a way to go.” – Warren Buffett
Sandberg argued that there are solutions to these problems, if women choose to step up and take them. “The more women leaders we have, the more we will associate leadership qualities with women,” and the more comfortable society will become with female leadership. She encouraged the young women in the crowd to start out “aiming high… you can always step back later.”
But the onus is not only on the individual: Sandberg argued that we need to change our institutions to bring about systemic change. Mentorship and sponsorship are biased towards men, and increased access would bring more women into upper management roles.
I believe that equality is within our reach, and it’s within our reach now.” – Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg is currently working with Stanford’s Shelley Correll, leader of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, to spread her mission and share inspiration, particularly through the Lean In project. The talk this evening, a part of the Jing Lyman Lecture Series, was made possible by the Clayman Institute.
What You Can Do
- start a Lean In small group in your home or community. Stanford already has one organized via the Stanford Libraries.
- young women: stand up for yourselves in the workplace. Negotiate that salary. Pursue that promotion. Check out LeanIn.org materials that can help get you started
- men: learn how to be supportive partners to women pursuing leadership. “Progress is going to turn more on the private conversations than on the public conversations.” Check out these three stories at LeanIn.org.