Empowering Women to Lead: Sheryl Sandberg Speaks at Harvard


Stand up if you have ever said any of these words OUT LOUD:

          “I am going to be #1 in my field.”

          “I am going to be the CEO of a company.”

          “I am going to be the president of an organization.”

This is how Sheryl Sandberg, current COO of Facebook and past VP of Global Online Sales and Operations for Google, started her speech last week on Harvard campus. As I stood up, I looked around the packed theatre, and to my surprise, only about a third of the people there (mostly women) were standing. And with the opposite reaction, Sheryl Sandberg nodded slowly, with an impressed look on her face, and announced, “this is the first time I’ve had this many people stand up.” But even still, I was surprised! I like to “talk big” and claim future CEO status all the time, so it was a shock to me to see that others do not think with the same optimistic/go-getter mentality.

Sheryl followed her opening question by saying that she wanted to ask three questions of the women who did not stand up, and if any of these questions were a reason for why they did not stand up, to raise their hand.


1. Is it because you feel that you are not prepared for or deserve one of those positions?


2. Is it because you feel that it is obnoxious or cocky to announce something like that to someone else?


3. Is it because you worry that a position like that would be impossible to balance with raising a family?


She then followed up each question with anecdotes.


#1. Not Worthy.

In high school, she, a girl friend, and her younger brother left an exam together and immediately, the two girls began worrying and nitpicking about what they did wrong. The brother, on the other hand, announced that he got a “flat A”–not a B+, not an A-, but a flat A. This was a perfect example of a significant mental difference between genders- it seems that girls always underestimate themselves while boys remain confident (or perhaps overestimate themselves). She commented that even now at Facebook, she still catches herself thinking in this manner. After a male colleague and herself pushed for a specific project and it finally got accepted, she commented to the man that she was so relieved people liked the ideas because she had thought she was crazy for standing up for the idea for so long. The man just shrugged and responded, “Oh, I always thought it was a good idea.”

#2. That’s cocky.

Why are women so quick to share success with and acknowledge others? We always say “we” and attribute success to others, to situations, to mentors, to something or someone other than ourselves. Men, on the other hand, tend to openly state that they themselves are the reason for their success. Yet, for women to do this, to be proud, to be large and in charge, is often viewed as bossy. As Sheryl pointed out– how often is a little girl who takes charge called bossy? Often. What about little boys? Not at all. Boys will be boys.

#3. But what about family?

And why is it that women are chastised for choosing work over family, but men are not? Why does this choice between the two even have to be made?  Working women are often asked- “should you be working?” After all, why aren’t they getting married and having a child? But working men- are they ever asked “should you be working?” She gave a funny but sad anecdote about a little girl in kindergarten who came home one day and announced that she wouldn’t get to be an astronaut anymore, like she had been planning. When her mom asked why, the little girl responded- “well, I want to be an astronaut, and the boy I like also wants to be an astronaut, and if we are both up in space, then who is going to watch the kids? .. I think it’s going to have to be me.”

Obviously, these are all Sheryl Sandberg’s views and stories from her speech, not my own. I think it is great she is bringing the Women Leadership issue back to the forefront and I support the publicity and hype she has drummed up for it. I will say, however, that I have not read her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, so I do not know how far she delves into this, but I  am not trying to display this issue of lack of women leadership as a men-versus-women, who-is-the-better-sex issue.

So, leaving the gender comparisons behind, what I did find interesting was that this dearth of women leaders is self-fulfilling, in a way. We don’t have many women in high management positions currently, but we also have women who don’t want these roles. There’s an ambition gap. As Sheryl put it, many women nowadays are “leaving before they leave”. And by this, she means, women are opting out of pursuing a higher position, a more elevated status, because they know they will leave in a few years. We remove ourselves from the corporate ladder early because we know we will want to leave it later on. But if you don’t “leave” early, and instead, “lean in” (hint, hint, title of the book) to your job to pursue your opportunities now in the present, then you can gain a higher leadership role, and then HAVE the power and authority to work and have a family, to change your work environment for the better. Sheryl’s Ted Talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” discusses this ambition gap more.


Recently, this whole Women in Leadership/ Work vs. Family discussion has really picked up, with interesting, and sometimes ridiculous articles being written.

Tyranny of the Queen Bee, an article recently published by the WSJ, argues that once a woman comes into a place of power, she, as a “Queen Bee”, will be less likely to help other women succeed because she wants to maintain her minority position as the “alpha female”.


Why Women Can’t Have It All, written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, past director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, attacks the feminist rhetoric that women can have it all– a successful career and a family. She argues that unless societal changes are made, women will be, and currently are, making sacrifices, and we as a society need to realize that and do something about it.

And one Princeton alum mother wrote a letter to Princeton females on the importance of Finding a Husband on Campus. Because “you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

So, here I sit, procrastinating studying for classes and writing blog posts, wondering if I can have it all, if I will be able to help future generations of women to lead or if I will become a queen bee, if I can lean in and stand up and speak up and do empowering things like Sheryl requests, and if…more importantly….I’m supposed to be out looking for a husband right now instead of writing this post??

Just kidding.

Anyways, I will leave you with the question Sheryl Sandberg ended with. Regardless of which authors you agree with, what your own opinions are, or if even think this is an issue to be debated, an important question to ask yourself is-

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”


Leave a Reply