Sheryl Sandberg Takes the Stage at the Firm's Women's Leadership Series Luncheon

On April 28, 2011, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, delivered an inspirational address to 250 legal and business professionals at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati's annual Women's Leadership Series luncheon, held in Menlo Park, California. Forthright, energetic, and thoughtful, Sheryl spoke about the importance of keeping women in the workforce and offered some candid advice on how they can overcome common—and sometimes even self-created—obstacles.

The good news, Sheryl said, is that women are doing "fabulously well" when it comes to getting into colleges, graduate schools, and entry-level jobs—a dramatic change from a generation ago. The bad news, however, is that "women are not getting to the top of any profession in significant numbers anywhere in the world, in any industry."

Sheryl outlined the statistics: Women comprise 15 percent of executive board members, 2.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 16 percent of Congress, and 17 percent of partners at major law firms. "If there's anything alarming about these numbers, it's not that we're hovering around 15 percent in every category," she said. "It's that the statistics were steadily improving until 10 years ago and haven't budged much since then."

The key to changing this dynamic, Sheryl said, is preventing "highly educated women—those with the potential to become partners at major law firms, full professors, or CEOs, for example—from dropping out of the workforce." While freely admitting that she doesn't have all the answers and acknowledging that staying in the workforce full time is not right for everyone, Sheryl provided several suggestions as to how to improve the lot of women professionals.

Her first piece of advice? "Don't leave before you leave," she said. "Only make decisions when you have to make them." By way of example, Sheryl referred to the tendency of many women to quietly "lean back" once they start thinking about having a child, sometimes years in advance. All too often, she asserted, this leads them to miss out on promotions and other opportunities that would have made their jobs more rewarding and compelling. "The tragedy is that the women who do this are not trying to leave the workforce; they are trying to stay in by making room in their lives for both work and a child. However, in making room for both, they make decisions that ultimately lead them to leave because they're dissatisfied or underchallenged at work."

Instead, she advised, "If you keep your foot on the gas pedal until the minute the decision needs to be made, you'll have the best possible job to compare staying at home with. If you ultimately decide to stay at home because it's more fulfilling, that's great, but at least you've set yourself up to have a real choice."

In addition, Sheryl said that we need to teach women to "raise their hands" and "sit at the table," both physically and metaphorically. To make her point, she urged attendees to watch where men and women sit at meetings. "I promise that if you watch long enough, you will see that most women do not take the center seat," she said. "They sit on the side or in the back, almost every time."

This is an issue of confidence, according to Sheryl. She again pointed to the data, which shows that men have a tendency to overestimate their success, while women have a tendency to underestimate theirs. More important, men attribute their success to their own skills and accomplishments, while women ascribe it to luck, help from others, or other external factors.

She admitted that she does the very same thing. "At every stage in my career, I've been certain that my success was due to luck. I met Larry Summers—he took me to the Treasury Department and asked me to be his chief of staff. Google was a rocket ship, and I got on it. Facebook—we're growing so quickly. To this day, I still feel as though I've just been really lucky, and I'll bet that many of you in this room do, too."

That innate modesty, Sheryl said, can be an obstacle to success. "You have to realize that the guy sitting next to you in some meeting probably doesn't feel the same way," she said. "And the people who have the confidence to raise their hands and believe they can do it, they're the ones who get the jobs. We need to teach women to raise their hands more."

Turning to the home front, Sheryl also emphasized the need for real partnerships, noting that while the workforce has changed dramatically over the years, the home has not. She cited data showing that if both members of a couple work full time, the woman typically does twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare that the man does. "And then we wonder why women burn out at work or feel that they can't take on more challenging jobs," she says. "Until we can get more support at home, we're never going to achieve equality in the workplace."

Sheryl concluded her talk by acknowledging how difficult these challenges are for women to overcome, as they often involve sticky negotiations, overcoming stereotypes, conquering self-doubt, and risk-taking. And the kicker is that if a woman does manage to achieve great success, it often comes at a high price. "Research shows that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, but negatively correlated for women," she said. "In other words, as a woman gets more powerful and more successful, she is less liked by people at every level and both genders. Women are often uncomfortable with that tradeoff."

But she was optimistic that things could change, especially if women speak openly with one another about these issues. "Very few of us actually talk about being women in the workforce—we act like the problems don't exist or that it will make us seem weak if we discuss them," she pointed out. "And yet the challenges we face are not going to get fixed if we can't talk about them. Have that conversation."

She concluded, "I have a three-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son, and I want them to have a real chance of being treated equally in this world. You can change the numbers of women at the top. They might not change much for our generation, but if we make the effort now, they can change for future generations."

Held on April 28, 2011, the luncheon was the seventh in Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati's Women Leadership Series. These popular events provide a forum for the firm's female attorneys, clients, prospects, and alumni to hear from prominent business leaders, as well as to network and discuss issues of concern to women in the field of law. Past speakers have included Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo and former CEO of Autodesk; Donna Dubinsky, co-founder and CEO of Numenta and former CEO of Palm; Carly Fiorina, former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Cathy Kinney, former co-president of the New York Stock Exchange; Deborah Majoras, chief legal officer and secretary at Procter & Gamble and former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission; and Meg Whitman, former president and CEO of eBay.