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Women and employers both need to ‘lean in’ to female leadership, Sandberg says

By Kate Abbott | 3 Apr 2013

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Courtesy of Paige K. Parsons.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke at Stanford University Wednesday, encouraging women to ‘lean in’ to their career ambitions. (Photo courtesy of Paige K. Parsons, Stanford University)

If companies do more to support women in their careers and women do more to support each other, then women in corporate and elected leadership roles won’t face the intense media scrutiny that they do today. Women in leadership will become the rule, rather than the exception.

That’s according to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of the new book, “Lean In,” which encourages women to have the same professional ambitions that men do, and not be held back by the feeling that they can’t put their full weight into work if they want to be mothers – or if they want to be liked by colleagues.

Sandberg addressed a sold out, mostly female audience at Stanford University on Wednesday evening. In her talk “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg named stereotypes holding women back in the workplace, told personal stories and addressed current examples, like the scrutiny Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has recently faced for prohibiting her employees from working at home.

“The media storm on her is because she is a woman. Full stop,” Sandberg said, adding that she doesn’t have a position on whether Mayer’s decision was right or wrong, but that it’s unfair for the media to use her as a representative of all women leaders.  “What happens to women is there are so few of us, you can pick apart one woman and any action she takes, and that can be stereotyped for all women.”

Sandberg began her talk by asking members of the audience to stand if they had ever said they wanted to “be the best in my field.” Only a handful did. She said that these numbers could rise were it not for three common mindsets that often hold women back: a lack of self-confidence, ambition seeming distasteful, and the obligation to parent.

“The more we have women who are leaders, the more we will associate leadership characteristics with women,” Sandberg said. To break these stereotypes, she stressed that women should be ambitious and give themselves the option to scale back if and when they have familial responsibilities — but not before.

She also said that employers can support women by making sure it’s not taboo to discuss their desires to have families and the work adjustments that might need to take place when the time comes.

(Kate Abbott / Peninsula Press)

Sandberg encouraged the audience to start Lean In Circles, like book clubs, to continue the dialogue and help women support one another in their careers and home lives. (Kate Abbott / Peninsula Press)

Sandberg promoted her new organization, Lean In, which encourages both men and women to start small “circles” — like book clubs that continue the dialogue.

One audience member asked Sandberg what advice she would give to her 22-year-old self knowing what she knows today.

“When I was 22, I thought it was completely obvious that when I got to where I am now that things would be completely equal,” Sandberg responded. “I wouldn’t have to be a feminist or talk about it because it already would have been done. And now I wonder if I could have done more then.”

By the end of her lecture, Sandberg asked the audience to stand if they could think of one thing they wanted to do differently to lean in to their careers. Almost every person stood.

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