Last updated: April 19, 2013 7:16 pm

Interview: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

The Facebook chief operating officer has enraged both sexes with her new book on women and work
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg©Philip Sinden

It is 4pm on a Wednesday in the trendy Menlo Park headquarters of Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg, its COO, is sitting in a glass office wearing a pink and black sports jacket. She has just had a busy day at work: although we are talking on Skype, I can see some of her staff hovering on the edge of my computer screen. In a few minutes, she explains with a broad grin, she is going to leave work for a baseball match with her son. “I’ve got cupcakes and pizza – he will love it!” she says, looking like a soccer – or baseball – mom, with tousled hair, glowing, make-up-free face and sporty top.

“How does she do it?” I wonder momentarily with a sense of awed envy, and then mentally scold myself in shame. As someone who is doing the “mummy juggle” myself – I have two young daughters who are similar ages to Sandberg’s children – I hate being asked “how I do it”. Indeed, when I first met Sandberg two years ago (at a Financial Times dinner I was chairing), we laughed about this. Everyone knows that being a working mother is challenging: the reason we are chatting on Skype, not meeting up, is because our schedules are packed. But millions of other women – and men – are juggling today. And those men are rarely grilled on how they combine the joys of parenthood with ambition, or handle the inevitable flashes of guilt or inadequacy.

In any case, it seems rather redundant to ask Sandberg how she “does it”. Last month she published her first book, Lean In , which describes in breathless detail how she has made family and career work – and appeals for more women to do the same. Never mind the fact that western women have entered the workforce and education in record numbers in the past two decades: this achievement has not filtered through to the top corporate jobs, of which only 14 per cent are held by women. Depressingly, that low statistic has remained flat for a decade. And in the UK, the number is lower still, at about 6 per cent. “There is stagnation,” she exclaims to me. “And no one is talking about it.”

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Gillian Tett

Some women blame this problem on male prejudice or institutional impediments. But Sandberg also thinks that women’s minds are at fault. Most notably, she believes they sabotage themselves by “leaning back” in their careers before and after having children, failing to make their voices heard and refusing to make men take on an equal share of domestic tasks. Thus she wants more women to “lean in” at work – pushing for success, even as they attend their kids’ baseball matches.

This message has infuriated some women (and men). Sandberg is wealthy enough to afford plenty of domestic staff – the Facebook IPO last year potentially made her a paper billionaire – and powerful enough in her office to set the rules. For other women, however, the battle looks tougher. Indeed, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the professor at Princeton who chose to leave a job at the state department in 2011 when she found the “juggle” too tough, has criticised Sandberg for not paying enough attention to institutional problems. And on a recent cover, New York Magazine declared that the new trend among some feminist women is to “lean out” – or choose to stay at home, not embrace a male definition of workplace success.

Sandberg herself is at pains to downplay any slanging match. On the issue of Slaughter, for example, she is tactful. “I’m looking forward to the book [that Slaughter is now writing],” she tells me, and stresses that Lean In also calls for institutional reform. And with Lean In currently topping the New York Times bestseller list, she is committed to promoting her message not just to women, but to men as well, including those who sit in the (largely female-free) senior corporate echelons.

“Just this morning I was with John Chambers [CEO of Cisco], and I spoke to him about Lean In, and he was very supportive,” she enthuses. “He said that they are going to change how they manage women. And I have had great messages of support from people like Mohamed El-Erian of Pimco and Bob Moritz of PwC. I went to Wall Street, and sat down with their senior managers to talk about this – and they were mostly men. And then I went to a CEO summit where it was 87 per cent men. I have been taking this message to men in power wherever I can.”

Sheryl Sandberg graduating from North Miami Senior High in 1987©CBS "60 Minutes"

Graduating from North Miami Senior High in 1987

But isn’t this show of support simply a case of corporate America jumping aboard the latest public relations trend? After all, I observe cynically, almost every corporate leader today claims to like equality. And there are other reasons why corporate America might want to charm Sandberg: not only is she an influential player in Silicon Valley, but she is widely presumed to have future political ambitions. Earlier this year, for example, her name was even mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary (an issue that she is too politically astute to comment on).

But she insists that there are bigger reasons why CEOs are open to her message. “Companies should not be doing [these changes] as a favour to women, but because it’s good for institutions and for their bottom line. Buffett says he only did so well because he was only competing against half the population – business leaders know getting more women engaged makes sense. It’s good for companies’ competitiveness.”

Sheryl Sandberg with Treasury secretary Larry Summers, as his chief of staff; he picked her for the role after working with her at the World Bank©CBS "60 Minutes"

With Treasury secretary Larry Summers, as his chief of staff; he picked her for the role after working with her at the World Bank

There is a second, less obvious, factor too. “There are a lot of senior men out there who have daughters – people like Bob Steel [the former deputy Treasury secretary and Wall Street luminary].” In particular, high-flying fathers are now realising that if they want their own daughters to fly, it is not enough simply to put them into a good college or entry job. “Women are outstripping men in education – they are even talking about the end of men. But there is stagnation at the top.” The promise of the earlier feminist revolution has somehow gone wrong.

. . .

This last issue is particularly emotive for Sandberg, since she has risen (as I have myself) on the rollercoaster of gender change in the past few decades. The descendant of Jewish immigrant stock, Sandberg grew up knowing that her female relatives had seen their own ambitions frustrated. Her maternal grandmother was filled with “energy and determination”, she writes in Lean In, but never had a career or proper education. Her mother started a PhD in the 1960s but dropped out when she became pregnant, [because] “it was thought to be a sign of weakness if a husband needed his wife’s help to support their family”. But when Sandberg went to Harvard in 1987, after high school in Miami, “both genders seemed equally focused on academics. I don’t remember thinking about my future career any differently from the male students. I also don’t remember any conversations about some day balancing work and children. Just two generations removed from my grandmother the playing field seemed level.”

After graduating, Sandberg went to work at the World Bank with Larry Summers, and quickly made a mark. But then her feminist dreams became more complex. “When I went to college, as much as my parents emphasised academic achievement, they emphasised marriage even more,” she recalls in her book. “They told me that the most eligible women marry young to get a ‘good man’ before they are all taken.” So she duly married early. But she then divorced, enduring a sense of “massive personal and public failure”. Indeed, such was her shame that when Summers later called to offer her a juicy Washington job – after she got an MBA from Harvard – she turned it down because she wanted to flee the place of her failed marriage.

Instead, she went to California, working for McKinsey. Then, after another stint as chief of staff for Summers – who was then Treasury secretary – she moved west again and took a job at Google. At the time, Silicon Valley was not very female friendly: women were almost as rare in the computer science world as the C-suite. Since then that situation has deteriorated even further. “In the 1980s women were about 30 per cent of the students on computer science courses – now it’s under 20 per cent,” she tells me. “I recently put my son into a computer science camp and out of the 35 kids only five were girls, and two of those girls were my niece and her friend. And that is happening here, in Silicon Valley! It’s terrible!”

Sandberg nevertheless made her mark: after rising through the ranks of Google, she joined Facebook, and won acclaim for her management skills. Some critics point out that she is not a female Steve Jobs; she is better at being a chief of staff than producing visionary insights or innovative breakthroughs. But nobody doubts her skill at managing difficult colleagues (be that Zuckerberg or Summers); or that she is brilliant at pulling teams together and promoting her company – and herself – with charm and impressive force. “One of the key things I have been saying is that we have got to look at language,” she says. “We have got to stop saying that our daughters are bossy, or calling women aggressive at work. We have got to break down these stereotypes – nobody says that about men.”

Sheryl Sandberg with her husband Dave Goldberg at the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho, July 2011©AP

With her husband Dave Goldberg at the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho, July 2011

By her forties, her student feminist dreams seemed on track: aside from advancing in her career she had “wisely and very happily” married again, to Dave Goldberg, a tech entrepreneur. But when she looked around, she noticed that many of her bright female contemporaries were falling off the career track. “My formative years in management were the last ten to 12 years,” she explains. “And that is when the stagnation [in women’s progress] has been particularly stark.”

Initially Sandberg was reluctant to talk about this publicly: women of her and my age grew up assuming that success was best achieved through hard work, not by chanting feminist slogans. “Until four years ago I had never said anything about this in the workplace,” she tells me. “Everyone I knew told me that I shouldn’t do this book, or talk about this, since it would be bad for my business career.”

Sheryl Sandberg talking at the Ted conference, 2010©TED

Talking at the Ted conference, 2010

But then she gave a couple of speeches at universities and a Ted conference which touched on the gender issue – and she received such effusive feedback that she decided to break her silence. “My agent said, ‘You keep waiting and waiting for someone else to write this book. But no one else is going to do this.’ So in the end I did it myself.”

Nevertheless, she did not find it easy to expose herself, preferring to hide behind numbers (an instinct I fully understand; most working women are wary of talking about their “juggle”.) “The first draft of my book was basically all [academic] studies. But no one liked them – they made me take them out.” Instead, her agent and ghost writer implored her to make the book “honest and personal”. It was a wise move: although Lean In still contains her beloved statistics, it is peppered with fascinating anecdotes about Sandberg and her friends.

She writes, for example, about the tensions she and her husband Dave faced when he got a good job in Los Angeles and she wanted to work in San Francisco. She discusses the challenges of crying at work, waddling around as a heavily pregnant “whale”, trying to negotiate a salary and using technology to work online at home. (Sandberg supports this, unlike Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo and another rare high-flying tech woman, who issued an edict discouraging homeworking.) She addresses the subtle problems that arise when you are mentored by a senior man (she once helped her former mentor Larry Summers write a speech in his hotel room until 3am – and then wondered how to exit the room without starting scurrilous gossip).

She even tackles the issue of head lice. A few years ago, she relates, she took her children on a business trip with other executives on a corporate jet and her flight was badly delayed. “I made it through the delay by allowing them to watch endless TV and eat endless snacks,” she recalls. But then her daughter started scratching her head. “I was the only person bringing young children … and now my daughter most likely had lice! I spent the rest of the flight in a complete panic, trying to keep her isolated, her voice down,” she writes, noting that when she landed she had to miss a business dinner, since she was delousing their hair.

. . .

For working women, these stories ring painfully true. I have also taken my own daughters to conferences and have endured our moments of head-scratching shame; I now carry a lice-detector in my bag, along with a DVD player. But while I admire her bravery in exposing this, wasn’t it hard, I wonder, to be so personal? How did Dave feel, say, about her discussing fragile male egos?

Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook HQ with Mark Zuckerberg at the launch of the company’s IPO, May 2012©Zef Nikolla/Facebook via Bloomberg

At Facebook HQ with Mark Zuckerberg at the launch of the company’s IPO, May 2012

She grimaces. “Both Dave and I feel the same way – we really didn’t want to make it personal.” But she also knew that it was the only way to really get her message across: every anecdote in the book reinforces her point that women need to speak up at work, push ahead with their careers – and, above all, to ensure they marry supportive, decent men, like Dave. “When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them,” she sternly writes. “Find someone who wants an equal partner … who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious [and] values fairness.” And don’t marry too young: she is appalled, she says, by a suggestion made in a much-discussed letter in Princeton’s student newspaper that girls need to focus on grabbing eligible men at university.

It is a profoundly wise message: indeed, I only wish my generation had been able to read Lean In when we were young. And Sandberg is now seeking to spread this gospel by establishing a so-called Lean In foundation and Facebook group which already has some 144,000 followers. This urges working women of all ages to engage in peer-to-peer mentoring in small groups. The foundation is also posting educational videos online to teach practical skills. “This material is amazing, it was developed by Stanford University – there is a video on negotiation, for example, that is really practical,” she enthuses, noting that material which used to be watched by “only 50 people” at Stanford business school is now accessible to thousands. “This is a case of online education meeting gender studies and business ‘how to.’”

Sheryl Sandberg with Gillian Tett at an FT dinner in San Francisco, 2011©Drew Altzer

With Gillian Tett at an FT dinner in San Francisco, 2011

And yet, as Sandberg promotes Lean In, I cannot help feeling that there is a certain irony here. For the first two decades of her career, she battled to be taken seriously in a gender-blind way; yet if the campaign succeeds, she may end up more famous for female issues than her role at Facebook. “Do you worry about what your legacy will be?” I ask. She laughs. “I’m only 43! I think I’m a bit too young to be worrying about my legacy!”

I laugh too. However, I remain torn between admiration for her courage in sticking her neck out – and unease about the reaction it has unleashed. “Is there anything that you regret about writing the book?” I ask. She shakes her head vigorously.

“Really?” I press. For a moment her cheery smile fades and the words tumble out with unusual speed, force and earnestness. “Do I mind the criticism? No! I completely understand that the debate is heated and emotional, on both sides – and I am actually grateful for this. I am arguing here for a very profound change and the reality is that there is never any change without heated debate.

“We need emotion, anger, debate. If my book can get that going, that is good! What is worse is stagnation, which no one is talking about.”

I catch sight of the clock: the time allotted to our interview is over. She waves at the screen, and – with another grin – vanishes to her baseball match. I have little doubt that she will log on later that night from home to deal with work. And, for my part, I am heading off to my own “mummy juggle”. I write this article on an aeroplane, while flying back with my daughters from a vacation – and, yes, they are watching television and eating snacks at 30,000ft, as that head-lice detector sits in my bag.

This is not quite feminism as anyone of my generation used to imagine it; nor is this messy family-work combination a lifestyle that all women would applaud or choose. But I hope that by the time my own daughters grow up, juggling and successful women like Sandberg will no longer appear quite so remarkable or unusual. If so, that will be progress indeed.

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