A conversation with Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Meta on women in the workplace

Anant Goenka, executive director, Indian Express Group spoke with Sheryl Sandberg at the Express Awards for Women Entrepreneurs. Here’s the full interview.

A conversation with Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Meta on women in the workplace

The Express Awards for Women Entrepreneurs, initiated by Financial Express and FICCI-FLO, aims to award women who have not only shown courage to take up leadership positions, but also who have braved numerous challenges to reach the top in their fields and set examples for future entrepreneurs. The keynote interview set the tone for the awards, with Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking with Indian Express Group executive director Anant Goenka about the impact of women in the workplace. 

Anant Goenka: I want to start with your book ‘Lean In’. It’s been 8 years since you wrote it. George Floyd happened, Me Too happened, Covid happened. If you were to write ‘Lean In’ all over again today in 2021 December, how much of the book or the central thesis of the book would you change?

Sheryl Sandberg: Let me start by saying, thank you for having me. It is precisely organisations like yours and leaders like you, having meetings like this that make a difference. So let’s start by saying this is what’s going right. Express awards for women entrepreneurs, you recognising women who are raising their communities and you are doing it with half of The Indian Express behind it so I’m grateful to be here.

So I wrote ‘Lean In’ in 2015. When I wrote the book I was a tech exec. I didn’t know if anyone would read it. The first version of the book was all research. I thought it was fabulous. There were 5 pages on the Matrilineal tribe and how characteristics we normally ascribe to women and ascribe to men. There were six pages on a video game study that showed experiments with college students playing video games. If the women think they’re watched, they shoot fewer targets than the men but if they think they’re not watched they shoot more. I thought it was fantastic. My husband Dave, my editor, and my book agent read it and they said this book sucks! No one is going to read it. They said you have to put your story into it. So I did it because I wanted people to read it.

I think by virtue of having my story, it read too much as if it was women like me. White women from California in tech. In all the international editions I had a local female business leader write a forward and I think that made a difference but if I have to write it again, I would have put so many stories in. The good news is that my foundation did that. So by the time, the book was coming out. I realised, I wished that I had made it broader because people might actually read this thing and they did, until I launched my foundation, and right on the website was hundreds of stories from women from all countries and races, background, ages, and industries. We started ‘Lean In’  in circles. Our goal was to have a thousand women in circles. And we what ended up with, right now, today we have over 58,000 circles all over the world including circles thriving in India.

Anant: The pandemic has been a setback for women at the workplace. Your own survey shows that 25% of the women are now considering leaving work due to burnout. Please explain the impact of the pandemic on women.

Sheryl: Covid is a health crisis. It’s an economic crisis and it’s a gender equality crisis. Now before Covid, women all over the world, women in United States, women in India were working in double shifts. Those who were working outside their homes and when they came home they do the majority of the housework and the childcare. That’s a double shift. Then Covid happened. Now we’re at double-double shift. Which is elderly parents to take care of, illness, kids home from school, kids who have to quarantine because they get exposure.

My foundation was the first one to survey that women are going to drop out from the workforce and they are. Women’s workforce participation in the United States is reaching low levels that we have never seen in decades. That means we’re going to wipe out. You know decades of progress, you asked me what was different when I wrote the book. I will tell you what’s not different anywhere in the world. Women are still not getting close to our share of leadership roles. It’s 5-7% of the top CEO roles. At the top countries in the world like the USA. This has not changed and covid is not helping.

Anant: I don’t think the trend is very different in India, I can’t cite a statistic to you but certainly we are seeing this happening in India as well. We are talking in 2021 and its almost funny to ask this but I really think it’s important that I ask you, can you offer a reminder to all of us, to the HR manager, to the employer of an 8 million to 12 million US dollar turnover company, small organisations who are really struggling and really trying to cut cost, make business feasible, can you just remind all of us the importance of insisting on diversity and having women well represented in the organizations?

Sheryl: Absolutely, We have said for a long time that we should have diversity. People in the leadership of different backgrounds, different genders, females, women, people of different races, because it’s the right thing to do and it is. But the message I will take to businesses is, it’s also the smart thing to do. Teams that are more diverse perform better, they outperform their peers at every level. From an individual point of view, let’s say if you’re a man, in this case, a man entering the workforce and you’re the CEO, You’re going to do better if your teams do better. But what people miss is that it is true for everyone. If you’re the most entry-level employee, you can work better with half the population. If you add races to that it is usually more than half the population. You’re going to outperform. It’s not just in the company’s interest but in your individual interest to hire, to promote to have a diverse management team.

Anant: All statistics tend to show that there have never been as many women in college in India as there are today and there are certain subjects where there are more women than men? What advice would you give these women who are graduating urban Indian college, they step out of a college and see a glass ceiling?

Sheryl: The most important advice I have to women in college in India but everywhere in the world is don t leave before you leave. Let me ask you a question? When you are choosing to go into a field did anyone ever say to you, you shouldn’t become a journalist, you shouldn’t go to The Indian Express because don’t you want kids. Did anyone ever say that to you? Of course not. You are a man. You know how many people have said that to me at different stages, are you sure you want to do that? When men enter the workforce we tell them to go for it, when women enter the workforce we say ‘you can’t have it all.’ Has anyone ever said to you, you can’t have it all? Of course not. Because what have it all means is a job and a family. But most woman do actually have to work and have jobs and families. So telling women they can’t do something they are going to have to do is cruel and leads to the situation we are in.

When I say to women ‘Lean In’, go into the workforce striving for the top and then at any point if you want to have kids, if you want to take a step up, if you can afford to do it, great I fully support that but don’t go in holding back because you know what’s going to happen, you are competing with some guy, you are starting here together, he is not holding back, you are holding back. Fast forward to 10 years when you have a family, you are working for him, he is higher paid, he is making the decisions. If he is working for you, you can afford childcare and stay in the workforce, you just give yourself options. Lean In has never meant staying in the workforce and going for the top for everyone, it just means don’t hold yourself back and then make decisions from a position of straight. So to every young woman out there “you can have it all.” Go for it and then give yourself more flexibility.

Anant: One question that came to me from my wife’s book club was very interesting was the question of privilege, she lives in India in Mumbai, she said: I can Lean In and I can go to the workplace because I have the privilege of being able to hire some other woman who doesn’t have that privilege to take care of my child while I’m in the workplace. So, there is this financial privilege that gives an upper hand to leaning in, how would you respond to that?

Sheryl: What happens to a lot of women is that they hold back and they wind up working the same hours for less pay, less responsibility, less impact, and less flexibility. I say to people, do you want to be CEO? All of them will say yes most women will say no. Why don’t you want to be CEO because I want to have a family, and then I say okay if you have a meeting with your CEO whose schedule sets that meeting? I have probably more flexibility than I had when I was a junior. Guess whose calendar sets mine? Mark’s. That doesn’t mean he is not concerned about my calendar he is and I’m very concerned for half of the people who work for me but as you get more senior you get paid more, you have more control, you can have more impact. So the idea you don’t want to go for it, in order to have flexibility, I think is exactly the wrong idea.

Anant: When you joined Facebook, you were considered the most powerful woman in tech, arguably the most powerful woman in Business. 10 years later, you are still the most powerful woman in tech and still the most powerful woman in business. Is there a glass-ceiling that Silicon Valley has which is tough to break?

Sheryl: In the highest countries like the United States, women have 7% of the top jobs. Women have 50% of the population, women are getting more than 50% of the college degrees almost everywhere in the world. Either men are obviously more talented than women or they are systematic biased, discrimination barriers that women face a lot. I think it’s the latter, I think its hard to argue right? I don’t think it’s controversial or even worth arguing whether there are no challenges faced by women or faced by men. There are full stop. Yes! There is a glass ceiling but the thing that my foundation Lean In is really focused on is even before we get to that glass ceiling there is a broken rung and it is that first promotion to manager. So, men are promoted and hired based on their potential women have to prove it. That means where the women fall out that first promotion to manager, why? Because you cannot prove to your manager until you do it. So, if you are going to promote someone based on potential you are promoted to man. So, more men and women are getting promoted to manager. So the inequity starts a few years after college. But once it’s uneven it continues to be uneven and so yes, there is too much of a glass ceiling but there is also a broken rung and it is that first broken rung to manager we need to fix. And again, hats off to you for having this conversation with so many people.

Anant: The kind of public scrutiny that Meta is going through is unprecedented, all over the world. The controversies around Facebook’s role of misinformation, hate speech, hostility to women, and marginalised do you see all this scrutiny playing out and do you think your position and your personal credibility as this rare woman leader in big tech, does that help Meta emerge stronger from all this public scrutiny?

Sheryl: I don’t know if my personal credibility helps. But I will tell you what I do know, is that we have a responsibility to get things right. Mark has a responsibility, I have a responsibility and I sit here today knowing how much we have invested to make sure that good happens on our platform and not the bad. If you go back 5 years ago, I will say there were a lot of things that really caught us up by surprise. You know, Cambridge Analytica, Russian interference in the election, hate speech on the platform, we were not prepared the way we should have been but that’s 5 years old. I say it here today, we are the leaders, we invest the most, we are the best in these things. Now, it’s still never perfect. There are over 3 billion people on this platform which means you can have all the good of humanity and all the bad. But our job and I show up every day and I should be held responsible for it is to maximise that good and minimise that bad.

What we see all over the world, is people and so many people in India using Facebook to share, to connect..its never been more important to be able to make that connection when you can’t be with people in person. And small Businesses had to make a digital shift. When things shut down they had to reach their customers online. We are for all those tools for free and we are the largest platform for small businesses all over the world. Our goal and I do it every day and I should be held in doing it everyday is to let that good happen and minimise the bad.

Anant: What’s your biggest inspiration?

Sheryl: My Mom. Because she is the most giving person I know. She is my inspiration as a mother and as a businesswoman – my grandmother. A grandmother who grew up in a time…if she had been born 50 years later, she would have run the world. But she wasn’t really allowed to work, she was pulled out of school when she was a young child to clean homes and make money for the family. A teacher went to her parents and said you got to get back that girl into school and she got all the way through college and then she didn’t technically work but when my grandfather’s business was failing she stepped in and saved it. The hard thing is he didn’t know how t do it.

Anant: One thing you have learned from India or from women in India.

Sheryl: I have spent so much time in India. I started my career in India working at the world bank. I then opened Google’s offices in India, opened up Facebook’s offices in India. So I certainly don’t know the way you do and your audience does but I do feel that I have worked there more and spent more time there than certainly most Americans. And I’m so inspired by the people of India but I’m also deeply inspired by the women. I mentioned before we have over 58,000 circles in 189 countries. We have almost 2,000 Lean In circles in India. I have heard so many stories, I will just share one. There is a woman who is a network leader with Lean In in Bangalore, and in her community during Covid so many women were resigning and so, she let an initiative to bring these women back to work and this is what is incredible, she reached out to the husbands of these women and their family members to connect them to other people to show them how important it was to help out so their wives, their daughters, their sisters could return back to work and almost all the women who left the work place in her circles are now back in.  That is inspiring.

Anant: My son is 2 years old. At what age would you advise my wife and I to give him his own smartphone?

Sheryl: Not at 2. I mean look, to get our services at 13. I think there are some very safe products out there. Where you can let kids start learning how to use technology. I tried to teach my kids to code when they were super young 5,6,7. Programs like Scratch that were really easy, that I would certainly do.

Anant: The next big innovation out of the Facebook campus that you are most excited about?

Sheryl: The Metaverse. It’s just a whole new level of a whole new world that we are going to be able to communicate and connect, transact in a way that we have never done before.

Anant: Is there a big innovation out of the Facebook campus that India should be most excited about?

Sheryl: I think the Metaverse.

Anant: A must-read book that you haven’t authored that you recommend the winners today to read.

Sheryl: I will read Adam Grant’s new book, ‘Think Again’ about rethinking your assumptions, it really is amazing.

Anant: If you were tasked to rebuild the internet ground up, what’s the one thing you’d change about it?

Sheryl: I would have built-in safety precautions that we build later earlier. If I can wave a magic wand, I would get rid of every bad thing that happens on the internet with every good thing. I don’t know if that’s possible.

Anant: If you were tasked to rebuild Meta ground up today, what’s the one thing you change about it?

Sheryl: I think I would have helped grow internationally more quickly. I think we are still playing catch-up.

Anant: If you were to write Lean In again today, what’s the one thing you would change about the book.

Sheryl: I would put more stories in. When I wrote my second book ‘Option B’, my first book Lean In was really 2/3rds the data of my stories but didn’t have enough flavour which we then tried to address with the second edition and the foundation. But Option B was a third of the data, a third of my story, and a third so many other stories from all over the world. I think that worked better. People don’t remember the data, my data and Lean In were very diverse but they don’t remember the data, they remember the stories. You need stories of diverse voices.

Anant: If you were to write that book 15 years later again is there one thing you wouldn’t change.

Sheryl: Lot of things, the core message. That we will be a better world if women get more leadership roles. I mean look countries run by women in the early stages did better in the pandemic and had lower death rates. If you ever needed proof that women should run more countries and companies, there is it. Not that we need to adapt, we have it.

Anant: One of your life’s deepest regrets?

Sheryl: When my husband died, of what is a preventable disease which is cardiovascular disease. If you knew then what I know now, he would have been here for a decade he probably would be alive today. Nothing else comes close to that regret.

Anant: Do you have an Insta account?

Sheryl: I do not. But I know many people that do.

Anant: If we would take you to an Indian restaurant, what would you order?

Sheryl: It’s the lamest answer of all kinds, but I hope it’s okay, I would order naan, because it is just better in India, it’s like you can make yummy Indian food here but you just cannot get that right here no matter what you do. The bread particularly, I think is the biggest gap.

Anant: Destiny or free will.

Sheryl: Free will

Anant: Work from Home or Work from Office.

Sheryl: Combo. Turns out to be great to do some of both.

Anant: Education or Experience. What is more important?

Sheryl: I am going to say both. But I will go with education.

Anant: Wonderful to have and wonderful to host you.

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First published on: 14-01-2022 at 21:10 IST