Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operations officer of the world’s largest social network, knows a thing or two about socialization. So why is it, as she noted to the crowd assembled in New York last night to hear about her new book, Lean In, that we are “socializing our daughters to nurture and our boys to lead?”
In a fireside chat moderated by TIME deputy managing editor Nancy Gibbs, the Facebook executive addressed a small auditorium filled with women and men of all ages, including members of her family and a few famous faces like actress Katie Holmes and finance expert and television host Suze Orman.
There’s a “success and likebility penalty” that women face in the office, said Sandberg. “As [women] get more powerful, they are less liked by men and women.” For men, the opposite is true.
Through her research, Sandberg learned that stereotypes about men and women begin at an early age. For example, in 2011, a clothing manufacturer created a line of onesies that read “pretty like mommy” for baby girls and “smart like daddy” for baby boys.
Sandberg could recite from memory the line her siblings once used to describe her: “To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child, but really just organized other children’s play.”
“You can laugh, it’s funny,” she assured the audience. “But there’s something that’s not funny about that.”
She had said earlier in the evening, “We call our daughters bossy. We almost never call our sons bossy.”
Despite the growing evidence that girls are excelling in school, the things that make girls successful in the classroom, like raising their hands and following the rules, are not the same things that make them successful in their careers, like taking risks.
She said that finding a mentor is difficult for women in part because working relationships can be awkward for members of the opposite sex. ”Men are nervous to be alone in a room with a woman,” Sandberg pointed out, but the problem is not impossible to overcome. One employer she knew who was uncomfortable socializing with his female employees at night chose to take all of his employees out to breakfast or lunch instead of dinner.
When it came to the idea of having a “work-life balance” and “having it all,” Sandberg did not seem to be a fan of either phrase, but she did note the importance of having a personal life as well as having compassion for others.
Sandberg was responsible for getting parking spots for pregnant women at Google, but it took her own pregnancy to realize how important that was. ”Data show unequivocally that when women are in leadership roles in companies, those companies have better policies,” she said.
What about telecommuting policies?
Said Sandberg, “There are Facebook employees we’ve never met.” The question was asked in reference to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently sent her remote employees back to the office, but it’s important to note that Sandberg was not criticizing Mayer directly. In fact, she had defended her in a previous interview.
Sandberg was also careful to include people who don’t have children in the conversation. Single women are just as entitled to leave work on time to go out to a bar to meet other single people as mothers are to leave work to drop their children off at soccer practice, she said.
And when ambitious women are given opportunities to advance in their careers, they shouldn’t “lean back too early,” she said. Single women should take them as they come instead of “leaving room” for their future family, while mothers should try asking their husbands to help out. When Sandberg decided to take the job at Facebook while caring for a six-month-old baby, she recalled,”my husband said he would so more.”
Most people in the audience raised their hands when Sandberg asked them if they had ever worked for a woman, but she noted that statistically, these numbers would drop at the top levels of business and politics, as fewer women run large corporations and run for office than men.
Surprisingly, she said, the gender bias is about the same in non-profit organizations as it is in technology. In addition to her leadership role at Facebook, Sandberg has founded the non-profit organization, LeanIn.org, which connects working women around the world.
Another myth Sandberg dispelled last night was the myth of the “corporate ladder” that women should aspire to climb. Instead of staying at one company, today’s workforce will have to make more lateral moves. If she had “climbed up the ladder” she was on early in her career, Sandberg said, she “couldn’t be at Google or Facebook because the internet didn’t exist.”
When asked how she felt about the controversy her book had stirred before it had even hit the shelves, Sandberg said she was surprised by the timing of the response, but not by the depth of emotion with which the subject matter was discussed.
She added that equality in the workplace should not only be a national conversation, but also a personal conversation between employers and their employees.