Sheryl Sandberg

“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

—Sheryl Sandberg

By Cara Dublin

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, was featured on the March 7, 2013, cover of TIME magazine as an American business and feminist icon. She is perhaps best-known outside of the business world for delivering a TED talk in December 2010 called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” The conversation she sparked then has been revived by the TIME article and her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013). She also maintains a website built around her book’s premise,

According to her profile on Facebook’s management page, forty-three-year-old Sandberg “oversees the firm’s business operations including sales, marketing, business development, legal, human resources, public policy and communications.” This broad job description at a company that serves over a billion monthly active users would be an impressive enough platform, but Sandberg backs up her top-dog position with incisive cultural critiques and frank truth-telling about women’s lives in the workforce. 

From early childhood, Sandberg manifested a gift and a passion for leadership. She managed her younger siblings’ games rather than participating in them, setting herself at the top and making her perspective heard. In the TIME interview, Sandberg takes issue with how society only seems to apply the term “bossy” to little girls.

“Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” she argues in her TED talk, and even her TIME cover reads: “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful.” 

Sandberg received her BA in Economics in 1991 and her MBA in 1995, both from Harvard. She served as a research assistant at the World Bank, then as chief of staff for the US Treasury Department under Clinton’s administration. Sandberg joined Google in 2001 as vice president of global online sales and operations, and moved to Facebook in 2008.

In her book and her TED talk, Sandberg expresses concern over how few women make it through the corporate world to become her upper-level management peers.  She states that 50 percent or more of college graduates have been women since the early 1980s, yet women’s educational progress is not translating to women’s “real progress” gains in the professional world.

In the introduction to Lean In, Sandberg recounts that only twenty-one of the current Fortune 500 CEOs are women. “Women hold 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percent of board seats, and constitute 18 percent of our elected congressional officials,” Sandberg writes. She shares the stark data that out of 195 countries in the world, only seventeen heads of state are women. Women hold a scant 20 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide. To Sandberg, “The blunt truth is that men still run the world,” despite women’s promising educational gains.

Sandberg suggests that women are prevented from high-level success by internal confidence barriers as much as by outside prejudices and patterns. She encourages analyzing the messages career women send to themselves, their colleagues, and younger girls about the potential for female success. She suggests that too many women lean back, are hesitant to put up their hands after lectures and be heard in meetings. “Men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors,” she said in her TED talk.

The end result, Sandberg writes in Lean In, is that “with each passing year, fewer and fewer of my colleagues were women.” Many women plan too far ahead and too nebulously, she adds in the TED talk, saying that women should pursue the next project and promotion “until the very day you need to leave, to take a break for a child” or another reason. This can cause women to be passed up for opportunities that would make their jobs more challenging, engaging, and fulfilling when they return from maternity leave. 

“If we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve,” Sandberg writes in her book’s introduction. “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voices to their needs and concerns.” 

Perhaps the most common critique Sandberg receives is that women can only change the structure of businesses and societies when they are at the top, but many existing business conventions must be changed to make it practical for them to get and stay there.

“Let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts,” Sandberg writes. “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

Certainly Sandberg has an intriguing message for the women of Phi Beta Kappa. Our drive for excellence in performance and personhood should never be limited exclusively to academics.

Cara Dublin is a senior at the University of Tulsa double majoring in history and English. The University of Tulsa is home to the Beta of Oklahoma chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.