Interview: Sheryl Sandberg Author Of 'Lean In' | What's Holding Women Back "The blunt truth is men still run the world," says Silicon Valley executive Sheryl Sandberg — and the problem begins as early as the playground, where assertive boys are called leaders, and assertive girls are called bossy.
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'Lean In': Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg Explains What's Holding Women Back

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Sheryl Sandberg has been the subject of op-eds and cranky commentaries in the past few weeks, over a book that wasn't even out until today. As chief operating officer of Facebook and before that, a top executive at Google, Sheryl Sandberg has not been known to court controversy. But her new book is something of a feminist call to arms, and it struck a chord. Here's a woman with two Harvard degrees, who's reached the top of the tech industry; and she's calling on other women to, as she puts it, lean in and embrace success.

SHERYL SANDBERG: Welcome to Facebook.

MONTAGNE: We met up with Sandberg at Facebook's headquarters in Silicon Valley.

SANDBERG: So everyone works like this. We're all in these very big, open spaces. You'll see no one has any cubicles, offices. There are no dividers between people, so teams can collaborate and talk together.

MONTAGNE: As we walk around, Sandberg points to posters on the wall - posters that spell out the Facebook creed with slogans like "move fast" and "break things."

SANDBERG: My favorite says, "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" - something that I think is really important, and I think very motivating.

MONTAGNE: Well, what would you do if you weren't afraid? Are you not afraid? Come on. You don't seem very afraid.

SANDBERG: I wrote in my book, what I would do if I wasn't afraid is, I would speak out more on behalf of women.

MONTAGNE: Preparing to speak to us about the book, called "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg got comfortable, crossing her legs beneath her on a big, orange chair. And I ask her:

Tell us how you reacted when one might think the most amazingly, wonderful thing happened to you - which is, you were named by Forbes magazine, back in 2011, one of the five most powerful women in the world.

SANDBERG: So Forbes puts out this list every year of the most powerful women in the world, and they put me as No. 5 on the list. And you know, I thought it was absurd. 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 - you know, Michelle Obama. And I'm thinking, of course I'm not more powerful than Michelle Obama.

MONTAGNE: Who wasn't one of those five.

SANDBERG: I think she was right up there but, yes, not one of those five. And the thing that's important about the story is, I was really embarrassed. 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.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are two lines of argument throughout this book, and one of them has to do with changing the society. The other has to do with women addressing aspects of themselves. And you have a plethora of studies in this book, and some of them suggest how women view themselves. Give us one example.

SANDBERG: We call our little girls bossy. 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.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's this study - you're...

SANDBERG: What I believe...

MONTAGNE: ...not just saying that - you're not just saying that as an anecdote.

SANDBERG: No. I mean, the data shows very clearly that one thing above all; which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated 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. 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.

MONTAGNE: Give us a couple of key statistics as to how women in 2013, have still, really not in great numbers made it to the top.

SANDBERG: Yeah. The blunt truth is, we've ceased making progress at the top in any industry, anywhere in the world. In United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs, and 17 percent of the board seats, for 10 years - 10 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.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about your own industry. And here's a statistic for you: Less than 18 percent of computer science majors are women. How do you get more girls and women into computer science so that they can climb the ladder - or what you might call the jungle gym - in one of the few really successful sectors in this country?

SANDBERG: It's such a great question because what's holding women back in computer science is the exact, same thing I write about in my book that's holding women back in leadership; which is what 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. 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.

MONTAGNE: Given that you've made this meteoric rise in two companies that also shot to the top in very short periods of time, you've had powerful mentors. The one that people will probably know is former Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers, also former president of Harvard. Have you ever thought that in a way, you were chosen as - there's only room for one or two - and in some sense, gifted to pass on through ,and be one of the few women who get there?

SANDBERG: It used to be the case that - exactly as you're saying; there was only room for one or two. And women would look at each other in a room, and know that because they were tokens, there - only one of them was getting promoted; there was only room for one of them at that table. And they were competitive with each other - or at least, that's what I've been told. Now, I think that's different. Every company I know is looking for more women at the table. Every board is looking for more women at the table. There's a reason why men want to understand the challenges women face, address them, because then they're going to be better hirers, attracters and retainers of women. Warren Buffett has very generously said that one of the reasons he was so successful is, he was only competing with half the population. Companies that use the full talents of everyone - those companies do better.

MONTAGNE: You speak from a position of a person who - you've earned it; but who, at this point in time, is - can do pretty much anything you want - well-off, you're not tethered to all kinds of duties at home, and you are running things. Is it realistic to ask, or suggest, that other women can, in some way, follow in your path?

SANDBERG: Yeah. I don't hold myself out as a role model. 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. 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's cheered on and supported.

MONTAGNE: Sheryl Sandberg, thank you very much for talking to us.

SANDBERG: Thank you for coming to Facebook. We're glad to have you.


MONTAGNE: Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook. Her new book, out today, is "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."

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